Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, April 18, 2014

Rainsy courts Vietnamese

Phnom Penh Post Kevin Ponniah and Vong Sokheng

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy yesterday said that up to a quarter of a million ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia could be granted full citizenship rights via the Nationality Law if his Cambodia National Rescue Party were to come to power.

The CNRP president has sought in recent months, through a flurry of letters to newspapers and online postings, to cast off what he calls a groundless “foreign-entertained allegation” of anti-Vietnamese sentiment levelled at him and his party.

His most recent comments regarding the citizenship rights of some ethnic Vietnamese come after the Cambodian People’s Party-led government announced the creation of two new departments in the Ministry of Interior to control immigration and the issuance of identity documents.

The CPP’s platform for next month’s councillor elections also promises to address problems related to immigration and make it easier for identity documents to be obtained by those who require them.

The moves have led analysts to conclude that the ruling party is trying to catch up with public opinion regarding long-term unchecked illegal immigration from Vietnam, a hot-button issue for many who voted for the CNRP – which has talked about the issue extensively, despite it not appearing on the party’s policy platform – at last July’s disputed national election.

Speaking with the Post yesterday on the phone from Europe, where he is due to attend a political party conference in the Netherlands next week, Rainsy said he believed there were around 500,000 people “of Vietnamese descent” living in Cambodia, half of whom were eligible for Cambodian citizenship via birth.

“According to me I think that up to half of these 500,000 people of Vietnamese descent fulfil the legal requirement to be considered as Cambodian citizens. So the CNRP, we must treat those who meet the requirement to be Cambodian citizens, as Cambodian citizens,” he said.

The 1996 Nationality Law outlines that Cambodian nationality can be obtained by anyone born in Cambodia to foreign parents, if they too were “born and living legally” in the Kingdom.

But rights groups say it would be difficult for many immigrant parents to prove legal residence, given the state of Cambodia’s legal and administrative system.

In line with the laws, the CNRP wishes to “curb illegal immigration” but from a legal humanitarian standpoint, Rainsy said.

“We have to be nuanced [and] make the distinction between people of Vietnamese descent who must be treated as Cambodian [and illegal immigrants]. When the CNRP comes to power we will recognise that right officially.”

While many Cambodians are fearful and suspicious of Vietnam due to historical grievances, a feeling “hastily, unfairly and inaccurately” attributed to racism by many foreigners, the CNRP would work to educate the public to respect ethnic Vietnamese citizens, Rainsy says.

“We will educate Cambodian people as a whole to respect those people . . . Those who were wrongly considered as foreigners. We must educate Khmer people, these are Khmer citizens as you and I and we must respect their rights,” he said.

“But other people who come illegally without documents, we have to deal with them properly and the basis will not be different from [what] Europe or America uses to deal with immigration.”

According to Ang Chanrith, executive director at the Minority Rights Organization, most ethnic Vietnamese were born in Cambodia do not possess citizenship, “except those who are rich or well connected”.

In comparison to Rainsy’s figure of 500,000, Chanrith estimates that about 700,000 ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia, but he said there is no solid data on population figures or what proportion of the group were born in the Kingdom compared to those “who come for political and economic purposes”.

Chanrith said that he hoped the government’s new commitment to improving immigration oversight was genuine, and not just to gain votes.

According to its political platform for next month’s council elections, the CPP is promising to “resolve the problem of immigrants, control immigrants and more effectively resolve the problem of crimes [committed by foreigners] in accordance with the existing laws”.

Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP lawmaker, said his party is committed to implementing existing laws and controlling immigration flows “for the benefit of the nation”.

“We are the ruling party and the government is paying strong attention to control immigration in order to avoid criticisms from the people and the opposition party,” he said.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak last week said that a new general department of immigration would allow the government to increase its capacity to process migrant applications with greater oversight from the ministry.

Veteran political analyst Lao Mong Hay said yesterday that while it was clear the CPP was “trying to catch up with public opinion” and gain lost votes with the new measures, the opposition was also courting voters – ethnic Vietnamese ones – by promising citizenship for those who are eligible.

“They are considering this kind of support [from Cambodian-born Vietnamese].”

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Burma: ASEAN activist meet-up raises worrying parallels with Cambodia

Is Burma heading for genuine reform, or is it just following the Cambodian model? asks Daniel Quinlan

Three thousand members of civil society from across ASEAN met in Burma earlier this month to discuss human rights and development, including the record of the host country.

Not so long ago such a gathering would have been unthinkable and the event marked another symbolic step in the country’s reform process, while highlighting stalled democratization of certain neighbors.

The ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC), also known as the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF), is held each year in the country that holds the ASEAN Chairmanship. Like the ASEAN summits, it provides an opportunity to discuss regional concerns and local views and experiences, albeit from a less lofty perspective.

Despite being monitored by Burma’s infamous special branch, participants were allowed to meet and discuss a host of issues that remain extremely sensitive both in Burma and across the region. The fact that participants were allowed to meet unhindered is in itself worthy of praise.

While the event itself is another symbolic example of Burma’s reform process, many of the issues brought up by local participants indicated just how far it still has to go on its road to democratic reform. Land grabbing and sexual abuse, not to mention a 60-year civil war, were just some of the local issues yet to properly addressed by government.

For local activists it was an opportunity to meet colleagues from around the region for the first time in a country long synonymous with political repression.

The meeting also highlighted another county’s failure to reform. In 2012, 19 years after the UN sponsored elections, Cambodia hosted its own ACSC/APF meet, an event that was to become symbolic of the failings of its democratic reforms. The government refused to allow discussions on land issues – or, ironically, Burma’s land issues – to take place. They pressured hotels and conference rooms to cancel events and even cut the electricity to one venue.

The brutal crackdown earlier this year on protesting garment workers after an sometimes violent election marred by allegations of fraud has only highlighted Cambodia’s democratic shortcomings and provided unfavorable comparisons.

One of the participants, returning from this year’s event, Rong Panha, an officer from the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions said, “it’s great that we can share and have discussions on finding strategies related to human rights issues amongst ASEAN countries”.

But referring to the crackdown earlier this year he warned Cambodia could end up “far behind Myanmar [Burma] as they are on their way to fast reform on their democratic journey.”

A report released two days after the end of the conference highlights some of the shared ground between the two countries.

From 2000 to 2013, Burma’s forests were relieved of some US$8 billion worth of timber which left the country through illegal and illegal trade, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). US$5.7 billion of that remains off the government books, raising serious questions over who is benefiting from the 22.8 million cubic meters of wood Burma has lost.

Land grabs continue to devastate urban and poor rural communities in both countries as the environment is stripped of its natural wealth.

Media reports of riots from Rakhine State in Burma last week again drew attention to another issue that offers reasons for serious concern: inter-communal violence. While inter-communal tensions in Cambodia have been simmering for years, in Burma they have exploded with worrying consistency throughout the reform period, resulting in the murder of some 240 people and the displacement of 140,000 since June 2012.

The issue remains the largest elephant in the room of Burma’s reforms and one that local activists are struggling to come to terms with. The fact that the issue was not brought up at the conference is an indication that it’s not only governments that have problems addressing certain issues.

Aid workers, seen as biased towards the country’s besieged Muslim and Rohingya minorities, were targeted by Buddhist-led mobs last week and were  holed up in the police station in the regional capital of Sittwe.

Just before one of Burma’s first highly symbolic moments, its 2012 bi-elections, an ex-political prisoner and member of the student group the 88 generation joked he hoped they would not follow the Cambodian model of democratization.

Unfortunately, Hun Sen’s 29 years in power have not gone unnoticed. His example of taking millions in aid while promising reforms year after year – all the while using brutal repression and overseeing a state of epic corruption – raises serious questions about how seriously Western governments engage with reform. The ‘reformers’ that have brought ‘disciplined democracy’ to Burma owe far more of their political thinking to Hun Sen than Thomas Paine. Democracy activists and civil society in either country are unlikely to run out of work any time soon.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

A Cambodian Spring Tsunami

March 23, 2014
By Michael Benge

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.

Source: AmericanThinker.com

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Sam Rainsy: I'll be a better PM than Hun Sen

Exclusive Interview - THE NATION

Cambodia's best-known opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), says he is determined to overthrow the entrenched "Hun Sen regime". He claims he won the July 28, 2013 election. He has led a series of protests in Phnom Penh. He has now agreed to join a "Joint Committee for Electoral Reform." Is he willing to strike a deal with Hun Sen? The Nation's Suthichai Yoon caught up with him in Phnom Penh last week. Excerpts from the hour-long exclusive interview:

You have agreed to set up a joint committee for electoral reform with Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodia People's Party. Do you think there will be a breakthrough?

I hope so. I don't know the intention of the other side, but as for us, we want to reach a political and peaceful solution; we want the holding of a new election as soon as possible.

But it seems like PM Hun Sen is not looking at this from your angle. He said there will be no new election, the electoral reform is for the next election, but the past election is done, finished.

It's a bargaining position, I think he's prepared for some concessions, because without concession, there can be no negotiation.

But before you agree to this joint committee, did you detect any signs of concessions from Hun Sen?

Yes, we have received signals, received some indication that the election could be held … before the normal end of the term, which is July 2018, so it could be held before.

But you have been demanding elections before the end of this year.

Yes, we have to make some concession also. Actually, we would like to have elections within six months, within this year, this would be excellent for us, but we couldn't have everything we want. So we will be flexible, and hope that the CPP will also show some flexibility.

Is there a timeframe you are debating or trying to reach an agreement between the two sides?

I hope that we can reach an agreement in the next few months, because the country is facing problems.

Will you go back to the streets if negotiations fail?

Then we would, but if negotiations proceed smoothly, then we'll continue to negotiate without calling for a new demonstration.

But the government has banned new protests; you cannot gather more than 10 people?

Yes, but many friends of Cambodia from the international community are putting pressure on the Hun Sen government to restore our liberties.

You think you can win the next election?

Definitely, we have already won the last election. We won the last election.

How many seats you think you won?

More than the CPP, there only 2 parties, we actually won more seats than CPP, at least 63, the most for them is 60 seats, making a total 123.

So you had a majority?

In reality, yes, but the result as proclaimed by CPP is not reflective of the will of the people. It's a distortion, that's why we are asking for an investigation into the irregularities that have marred the last election.

But Hun Sen says there will be no investigation into alleged fraud in the election?

But the whole world condemned the election, we have recently got resolutions from the European Parliament, the Australian Senate, and the US Congress re-cently passed a bill calling for an investigation as independent observers have exposed the irregularities, and have shown that the last election was not free and fair.

Between your two demands - early election and investigation into fraud - which is more important to you?

Now it would be early election, because we have to think ahead, as our supporters and the vast majority of Cambodian people are asking for new election, but provided the new election will be better organised than the previous one. That is why before holding a new election, we have to implement election reforms. This is why we have to set up the joint commission with CPP to revise and implement election reform.

So you're not demanding the resignation of Hun Sen?

I think … we would be happy with an early election because we know that after the next election, if they are organised election properly, PM Hun Sen will go anyway.

So you're ready to be prime minister?

I think it would reflect the mandate of the Cambodian people.

You think you can run the country better than Hun Sen?

Of course.

Why and How?

Because this country is going down the drain. The people are not happy, they suffer from the fact that the current regime, Hun Sen's family, cronies are just selling the country to foreign interests.

Some critics do not believe that you or your team can run the country yet; that you do not have enough experience in running the country?

Sometimes it is better to have no experience rather than to have experience in corruption, in crime, in destroying the country. It's better not to have that kind of experience, but we have many supporters who have experience, expertise in all fields and we'll mobilise all the human resources available, including those working for the current regime. They are just part of the bureaucracy, civil servants, they have been receiving bad orders, but they are looking forward to have a new leadership for the country, and they will serve the country with loyalty.

What will be your top your agenda if you are PM?

I will put forward three words: Rule of law. This is what needs to be implemented.

You don't think there's rule of law here now?

No. Today there is rule of the guns, rule of money and rule of PM Hun Sen and family. This has to be replaced with rule of law.

But PM Hun Sen's influence has been so deeprooted, he's been running the country for at least 28 years, how do you uproot such an entrenched power base?

I think a few days or a few weeks before the fall of many dictators, people could have made the same remark about the fall of Nicholae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Ben Ali. Many people said those dictators have been in power for decades, so they will stay in power forever. This kind of reasoning is wrong. On the contrary, the longer they stay in power, the shorter the time they will be in power.

Do you think the army will follow your orders if you suddenly become prime minister?

The whole population, and the army, they have their parents, relatives, wives, children with us. They are not going to kill their own parents and relatives.

I notice that the young people are more outspoken, they now express their opinions openly, but when I came here 10-12 years ago, they would not talk publicly against the govt, but now they talk openly. How has this change come about?

Because this is the new generation. About 70 per cent of the population are under 30. So they are more educated, more critical, more demanding and they want to change the leadership of country, because since they were born, less than 30 years ago, they have only seen Mr Hun Sen as PM.

They have seen only one PM in their life so far?

Yes, but they are more educated, have access to Internet, they travel as migrant workers especially to Thailand and they see and compare Cambodia with neighbouring countries, which have changed leadership on a regular basis. That's why neighbouring countries are more developed, people are more happy. Countries that keep the same leadership for 30-40 years are the most backward countries like North Korea, some African countries, leadership like Mr Mugabe [Zimbabwe president], all kinds of dictators. Young people understand that we need new ideas, new inspiration, new leadership.

But you are not a young man. How do you inspire young people; you are 64 this year, not young?

But I share the same ideas and same hopes as these young people.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, social media you think have a role to play in what you call a big change?

Definitely, the new generation is better informed and can be better mobilised quickly thanks to Facebook mainly. The opposition does not have any access to any TV or modern broadcast media.

You are not allowed on TV at all?


Never get interviewed on TV?


Newspapers cannot interview you?
No. TV is the monopoly of the ruling party for 30 years.

Not even one minute?

Not even 1 minute.

When you speak publicly, they are never reported?

Never, they ignored us. But even so, people support us, they know what we are doing and fighting for, it's mainly through Facebook.

So you have been using Facebook, quite actively too?


I've been watching yesterday and you put up the clips when you went out to meet villagers.


And you also have web TV?

Yes, but it is through FB, YouTube. It's not traditional TV.

But a lot of people follow you?

Yes, fortunately, and more people will do so.

This is quite a recent trend, but before social media, how did you reach out to the people?

Mobile phones. Much better than nothing. Word of mouth. Effective enough.

How do you see the influence of social media on the next election? Do you think it will have more influence than before?

You've just mentioned that the people in general, and young people in particular, are no more afraid, because they know that they - those who support the opposition - outnumber the supporters of Hun Sen. In the villages, people come out and say they want change, and they support the opposition. Ten years ago, they would never dare to do this. But now in any village, the villagers know that the majority of the people in any village support the opposition, so why should they be afraid of the ruling party. It should be the other way around.

What would you tell your voters about your strong points? Why should they make you PM? Tell me three strong points?

Give the country back to them, give Cambodia back to Cambodian people, give their land back to the farmers because Hun Sen has granted 99-year-concessions to a large number of private and foreign companies. Land grabbing and land confiscation is a major problem in this agricultural country. Countless farmer have lost their land. The situation is ripe for big change. And also corruption is so rampant. The government has no money to pay decent salary to civil servants. They are obliged to resort to petty corruption but they are not happy. They say the real problem is not survival corruption at the low level, the real problem is the corruption at the top level of the government. Also, factory workers get very low salary, also because of corruption. Private companies, especially garment companies, have to pay heavy bribes to government officials, to army generals, and they don't have enough funds or resources left to increase the salaries of workers. So, workers understand this. We have to put an end to government corruption in order for workers to get salary increases.

When you talk of strong points, people will ask you in what way are you better than Hun Sen - as a person, as a leader?

I serve my country and I only serve my country. Whereas Hun Sen serves a foreign country. A foreign country…

You mean…

The country which has put him in power since the very beginning, more than 30 years ago.

One of your weak points, according to your critics, is they say you are anti-Vietnam?

I'm not anti anybody, anti any foreign country. I'm pro-Cambodia. I have to defend Cambodia's interests and to resist any attempt to control or even to destroy my country for another country to swallow.

So if you become PM, you would have a neighbour who doesn't like you and you don't like them either - Vietnam. How would you improve relations with Vietnam if you become PM?

It is not a matter of liking or not liking. It's a matter of respecting each other, but you must start by respecting yourself first. If you sell your country to a foreign country, [it means] you don't even respect yourself, so other people will look down upon you. But when a new leadership in Cambodia shows that they want to defend their country, love and respect their country, then countries around us will also start to respect Cambodia.

You have been accused of using the word Yuon, which is considered by Vietnamese as insulting?

It's the same way, same word you in Thailand use to call the Vietnamese. So there's nothing wrong.

But maybe the intonation in Thailand and Cambodia is different. It's the same word, I know. We also call Vietnamese Yuon, but not in an insulting way?

In Cambodia also, it's similarly neutral. It's the CPP propaganda backed by Vietnam. They want us to call them Vietnam, the way they like to be called. But this is against our tradition, language and culture. We have known them as Yuon for centuries, 4-5 centuries and the world Vietnam was invented 50-60 years ago. And they want to change our habit. You know in the 1980s, 1810-1820s Vietnam at that time, it was not Vietnam. They invaded us and they forced us to change our habits, language to speak Vietnamese, to use the same words as them. We refused and we got killed, massacred. And now it's the same, because they control Cambodia, they want us to use the same words as them but the resistance has continued and will continue.

Among the Cambodian people, do you sense that there is negative feeling towards the Vietnamese?

Not negative against anybody. They are unhappy, and they suffer because their country is going down the drain. It is controlled through our current government, which is a puppet government. Our country is controlled by a foreign country. So we are very sad.

In what way has Vietnam influenced Hun Sen in a bad way. Any examples?

They have colonised Cambodia. Look at the economy, it is under control of a Vietnamese company: telecommunications, telephone. In Thailand it is a very sensitive industry, the tourist industry. Airline is a Vietnamese company. Even Angkor Wat is controlled and managed by a Vietnamese company or someone very close to Vietnam. The Vietnamese company has received as 99-year concession hundreds of thousands of hectares and they have been destroying the forests in order to say that they are developing the country…They have destroyed a large portion of Cambodia forests.

But there are also Singapore, Japanese and Thai investors?

Very little. If you look at the breakdown, the investment, especially the most destructive investment, is controlled by Vietnamese companies.

So if you become PM, how are you going to handle Vietnamese economic influence in Cambodia?

Everybody, whether they are Cambodian, foreigners, Vietnamese, Thai , Chinese, American, Japanese will be treated in the same way. Equality before the law. So they will have to respect the law and we will not allow 99-year concessions. We have to think of our farmers' interest first. We must give back their land to farmers because nothing is a worse situation than the one of landless farmers. They have become beggars, desperate. They have nothing to sell except their children going to prostitution, human trafficking. So it's terrible. We have to give back their land to farmers.

So you don't regret your role in the incident at the Vietnamese border, where you were accused, and sued in court for encouraging local people to remove the border marker?

You know the current situation vindicates me, because I just went to the place where I uprooted the so-called border pole.

You did it yourself at that time?

Yes, with supporters. Now the Vietnamese have gone back to the original border, so the land is still Cambodian. Had I not uprooted those border poles, Vietnam would have taken the lands already. So, the farmers, they like me very much. They are very grateful. They say 'we're fortunate that Sam Rainsy came to defend our land'.

So you will do it again and again if it happens again right?

Yes, because our farmers' land is our country's territory, so it's our duty to defend our country.

What would be your weak points compared to Hun Sen?

I would never kill anybody. Hun Sen would not hesitate. Hun Sen is very good at clinging on to power, at surviving as the political leader and in the Cambodian context, he would do anything to remain, at any cost, to remain the top leader of this country. For me, I would give up if I have to kill, if I have to destroy the country, to make millions of people unhappy, I would give up. Okay, whoever would continue, let them do so. So this is why we have only peaceful and non-violent ways. We have to be patient, and sometimes we have to sacrifice some of our people in a non-violent way, but when they kill us, we don't respond.

So, you're saying you are not as tough as Hun Sen?

Yes, but I believe that in the modern world, you don't need to be a criminal to be in power.

Will you be a soft leader?

No . What do you mean by soft?

Meaning that you would hesitate to make decisions that are difficult?

No, you have to stick to the principle. You have to be firm. Because if you fight for your country for a cause that is supported by the vast majority of the people, then you have to be strong, strong in your will, determination.

Apart from Vietnam, there are also issues with Thailand. How would you handle Thailand if you are PM, especially the Preah Vihear issue?

You know I've lived in Europe for many years, and I'm fascinated by the European Union, the EU as a regional grouping. I dreamed of a new Asean built on the same model as the EU. This trend of grouping would be based on common values, on democratic values, on respect for human rights, good governance, rule of law. I think if we share common values, we will become the best of friends and the best of allies, working for common prosperity, I'm also fascinated and inspired by the reconciliation between France and Germany, which had been fighting each other for centuries, but eventually, after the end of war, they achieved reconciliation. They work together, share common values, built the core of the EU which is a real success story. I dream of an Asean built on the same model, even though Cambodia-Thailand on the one hand, Cambodia-Vietnam on the other hand have not always been friendly to each other. But we can, and must and will achieve reconciliation. Like France and Germany we must work together for peace and common prosperity.

(Part 2 of this interview will be published in The Nation tomorrow.)

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cambodia protests unmask anti-Vietnam views

Phnom Penh - Amid the excitement of massive pro-democracy protests that took over the streets of Phnom Penh in late December and early January, the largest such demonstrations in the country's history, a dark side has emerged.

Alongside cries for greater government transparency and less corruption, and calls for Cambodia's strongman prime minister, Hun Sen, to step down, some street protesters have been shouting anti-Vietnamese slogans, reflecting opposition leader Sam Rainsy's longtime animus toward the Vietnamese - a conspicuous blotch on his otherwise strong human rights record.

Protests by opposition supporters and garment workers culminated on January 3, when at least four workers were shot and dozens wounded by military police along Veng Sreng Street in the capital's outskirts. Less widely reported has been the fact that demonstrators shouting racial epithets looted at least three Vietnamese-owned businesses that day nearby, and are reported to have destroyed several more. Many ethnic Vietnamese residents of the area have fled the country.

Sok Min, 27, the owner of a café near Veng Sreng Street that was destroyed by anti-Vietnamese protesters, said he lost $40,000 in the attack and sent his terrified wife and two children back to Vietnam indefinitely.

"They came to destroy everything," he said as he surveyed his damaged shop shortly after the attack. It was denuded of furniture and covered in shards of glass and empty coffee bags. "They said I am a Vietnamese and they don't like it."

'Alarming' statements

During July elections here, the liberal Cambodian National Rescue Party, led by Rainsy, made major gains against the long-entrenched government of Hun Sen, who has led the country since 1985, after climbing to power on the back of a 1979 Vietnamese invasion that ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

After a 10-year occupation, Vietnamese forces withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, but Hun Sen's Cambodia People's Party still maintains a friendly relationship with this country's more powerful eastern neighbour, a historical enemy turned ambivalent ally.

Because of this history, Rainsy has long maintained fierce opposition to alleged Vietnamese encroachment into Cambodia that, some say, teeters perilously close to bigotry. Although Rainsy insists he does not condone violence against ethnic Vietnamese living here, his speeches over the course of his two-decade political career have often included harsh rhetoric against the unpopular minority, telling supporters he will make sure they are removed from Cambodia.

In 2009, he led a rally to uproot border markers he said were illegally placed in a Cambodian rice field. He was later prosecuted for racial incitement and forced to flee the country.

In a visit to Phnom Penh this week, the UN's special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, made a rare rebuke of the opposition. Subedi said he was gravely concerned about recent shootings of protesters and other serious rights violations by Hun Sen's government, but also about the tone of the CNRP's rhetoric and the race-based lootings along Veng Sreng Street.

"I am alarmed by the anti-Vietnamese language allegedly used in public by the opposition," he said in a statement Thursday.


Ou Virak, a prominent activist who heads the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, has spoken out about his fears that Rainsy is engaging in potentially dangerous race-baiting, and condemned the leader's frequent, often emotionally-charged use of the term "yuon"- a word for the Vietnamese that can be derogatory in some contexts.

In return, over the past month he has been subjected to a torrent of online abuse, and even death threats, over his comments. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders has issued an urgent statement about Virak's situation, calling upon Rainsy to publicly speak out against the threats, which the opposition leader has not yet done.

Virak says the CNRP's focus on the Vietnamese is pure scapegoating that diverts attention from more pressing issues facing all Cambodians, such as poor infrastructure, rapid deforestation, and rampant human rights abuses by Hun Sen's government.

"They are using race politics to blind our judgment and our ability to debate the many credible issues that affect people's daily lives," he said.

When asked why he had not condemned the threats against Virak, Rainsy told Al Jazeera that he condemns all forms of violence.

He added that Subedi's criticisms were based on a "misunderstanding and misinterpretation" of Cambodian language and culture.

"The Cambodian people in general, and the Cambodian National Rescue Party, in particular, we do not view any country, any people, as hostile. But we consider that the current policies of the current government in Vietnam, their policies toward Cambodia are not very friendly, not very constructive," he clarified, citing allegations of Vietnamese encroachment along the border and Vietnamese companies granted concessions to log in forests here.

But even if Rainsy himself condemns violence, he may not be in full control of the anti-Vietnamese sentiment he has mobilised in the streets. During opposition demonstrations, cries of "yuon animals" and "yuon dogs" can often be heard from street protesters, often directed toward police and security forces.

Historical legacy

Phuong Sopheak, 27, is a fervent opposition activist who joined the CNRP in June. Inspired by the possibility of change, he attends many anti-government protests, including the one along Veng Sreng Street. He says he likes the CNRP's proposals to help Cambodia develop faster, but is especially drawn to the party's stance against Vietnamese migration. He is also convinced that many top government officials are Vietnamese masquerading as Cambodians.

"They sent their people to Cambodia and installed Hun Sen as the leader, and they want to get Cambodian territory," he said

He said that many small-scale Vietnamese businessmen like Sok Min were actually spies, although they did not deserve to be the victims of violence.

"Some of those coffee shop owners are spies coming to get information from Cambodia," he said. "Of course they may claim that Cambodia is a good place for business and living, but I have seen their identity cards and they are Vietnamese police."

In adopting a harsh tone toward the Vietnamese, Rainsy and the CNRP are cannily exploiting a long and complicated history of mutual mistrust between Cambodia and Vietnam that has been punctuated by outbreaks of violence. The Mekong Delta region was Cambodian territory until it was conquered by Vietnam in the 18th century; many Cambodians remain bitter about the loss, pointedly referring to the area as "lower Cambodia."

During their rule in the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge adopted virulently anti-Vietnamese policies. The internal purges that convulsed the regime in the years before its ouster were driven in part by paranoia over possible Vietnamese spies, while Pol Pot's bloody anti-Vietnamese pogroms along the border were the impetus for Vietnam's 1979 invasion, which drove the Khmer Rouge into Thailand.

Hun Sen still enjoys a cozy relationship with Hanoi, his longtime patron, and his closeness to Cambodia's historic enemy provides an easy target for the CNRP. On a recent visit to Vietnam, he delivered a speech in fluent Vietnamese about friendship between the two nations; a YouTube clip of the event quickly garnered hundreds of angry comments.

The government has also undoubtedly been lax in enforcing immigration laws when it comes to Vietnamese economic migrants like Sok Min, many of whom are, in turn, unswervingly loyal to the CPP.

'They lost everything'

Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP lawmaker, defended the government's policies toward Vietnam as a simple matter of expedient cooperation with a powerful neighbor.

"The CNRP paints Vietnam as an enemy and discriminates against a nation that is our neighbor," he said. "It's very dangerous, and strongly affects our national interests - Vietnamese tourists and investors will be scared and stop coming."

David Chandler, a professor emeritus at Monash University who has studied Cambodia for decades, called Rainsy's accusations against the Vietnamese "claptrap".

"[Rainsy] seldom documents his accusations," he noted. "To be sure, Vietnamese agribusinesses are causing harm in Cambodia, but so are Malaysian ones, Korean ones, Chinese ones." He said it was unlikely that small-scale shopkeepers and other economic migrants from Vietnam were harming Cambodian interests.

Ben Daravy was busy this week sweeping up the shophouse she owns along Veng Sreng Street and trying to get it in shape for another tenant. The previous renter, a Vietnamese single mother, fled on January 3 after a mob broke down the door of her coffee shop, carried away her furniture and cooking equipment, and threatened to burn down the building. The woman escaped out the back door with her daughter and never returned.

"They brought gasoline to burn down the house, and they would have burned it down, but a neighbor stopped them, telling them that the real owner of this shop is Khmer and not Vietnamese," Ms. Daravy said, her voice rising.

"The Vietnamese owner lost everything, I lost a lot, and I cannot help her at all," she said.

Source: Al Jazeera

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

South Korea urged Cambodia’s military to crack down on protesters

GlobalPost exclusive: As workers who stitch for Western brands demand a livable wage, South Korea urged Cambodian forces to protect corporate interests.

Screenshot of Korean flag emblem on fatigues, foreground left (from Facebook video).

SEOUL, South Korea and PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Conspiracy theorists frequently accuse rich countries of “puppeteering” in the developing world, quietly pushing governments to deploy thugs to protect wealthy — and sometime abusive-corporations.

There is truth to this, but it's rare to uncover on-the-ground examples of how this string-pulling works.

Cambodia's current conflict over garment wages provides one such example, GlobalPost has learned.

In recent months, the impoverished Southeast Asian country has been enmeshed in a series of strikes involving garment workers who stitch clothes for Western brands. Workers are demanding a doubling of the minimum wage, saying they can’t live on their current $80 monthly income.

Late last week the government responded with a violent crackdown. Elite units wielding Chinese-made weapons, batons, and steel pipes chased protesters through the streets. Five were killed and dozens were injured.

Although the garments are destined for the US, Europe and Japan, South Korean companies reap much of the financial gain, playing the role of middleman between laborers and Western brands. Korean-owned factories employ legions of low-wage workers, churning out clothing for fashion-hungry markets. In 2012, Seoul was the largest investor in the country with $287 million in projects, beating out its behemoth of a neighbor, China.

Now, South Korea has emerged as a behind-the-scenes actor in the crackdown. The embassy admits that in recent weeks it has been running a backdoor campaignto protect Korean business interests. This campaign has included turning to the brutal and battle-hardened Cambodian military to implement security measures.

Seoul and Phnom Penh maintain a brotherly bond that goes beyond money. South Korea’s previous president was also an economic adviser to the Cambodian prime minister. Korea was the first democracy to congratulate the ruling party on an election July 2013 election win that human rights groups say was loaded with irregularities — and that sparked the wave of labor and political demonstrations that ended late last week.

In other words, there are "national" interests at stake. Those interests have apparently translated into protection for Korean companies — particularly as protesters stepped up their game, launching raucous assaults on factories.

On Thursday, an elite paratrooper unit showed up at a protest armed with batons and steel pipes, beating a dozen monks and demonstrators in front of a factory run by Yakjin, a joint Korean and American corporation that supplies garments to Gap, Old Navy, American Eagle and Walmart.

On Friday, the repression took a darker turn. Hundreds of battlefield troops, including some from the prime minister’s personal bodyguard brigade, shot and killed five demonstrators in another area of Phnom Penh, the Canadia Industrial Park.

Sound terrible? Not everybody thinks so.

In a long-winded statement in Korean on Monday, the South Korean embassy took 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 embassy boasted that Korean factories at the Canadia Industrial Park, where the Friday killings took place, were handed a special favor as a result of diplomats’ efforts. Their buildings were the only ones to get special protection from soldiers, the statement claimed. Seeking resolution to the strikes, Korean officials pushed their case to dignitaries who don’t exactly put labor strikes in their portfolio: the powerful head of Cambodia’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, who reports directly to the prime minister, and other top military officials.

“As a practical measure, military forces and police have been cooperating closely with us to protect Korean companies since we visited the capital defense command headquarters with Korean businessmen to tell them about the situation, and as a result, to prevent any arson attempt or looting, military forces are directly guarding only Korean companies among many factories in the Canadia complex,” read the statement, discretely posted on an official Facebook page that is not widely viewed (see screenshot at the bottom of this article).

Another statement added that, since December 27, Korean officials have appealed in a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the country’s strongman for nearly three decades. Unable to meet directly with the dictator, the embassy held talks with members of his cabal: Om Yienteng, chairman of the government’s human rights committee, Ouch Boritth, one of many “secretaries of state” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and at least four other top officials.

Not everyone agrees with the embassy’s version of events. Yakjin, the garment maker,insists that military police arrived in the spur of the moment owing to protest violence on Thursday. The clear-out, the company says, wasn’t planned. “People, and not just the labor union, gathered and tried to literally push into the factory,” said Kong Sokunthea, an administrative officer at the center. “There is a military unit behind the factory, and a worker [inside the factory] knew a soldier, so we asked the military to step up.”

“The military came in front of the factory door and tried to convince the workers to return, but they declined, so the military got a few people. The government’s order was also the reason why the military was able to subjugate the strike in such a fierce manner,” she said.

She denied that Yakjin had been in cahoots with the Korean government, and was unaware of any Korean meetings with the military.

A representative from Yakjin’s head office in Seoul hung up on GlobalPost when asked about possible government involvement.

Government officials and industry representatives interviewed by GlobalPost, too, could not confirm that any discussions took place between Korean and Cambodian officials. “I don’t know about any meeting between the higher-ups, but there could be a request or suggestion from the businessmen as it is the economic zone…they must have requested we help maintain security and protect their interests and properties,” said Kheng Tito, a spokesman for the military police.

Even if there was Korea-Cambodia engagement, “I don't think private sector had any authority to order the military to take action,” said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), a membership body of garment companies.

On Tuesday, GMAC dismissed the five deaths as “collateral damage.” The group complained that weeks of labor unrest will cost the industry $200 million, the Cambodia Daily reported.

Among Cambodian soldiers at the scene of a demonstration, GlobalPost also identified an individual bearing a South Korean flag emblem on his army fatigues. The individual, who has not been identified, was captured in a video of the demonstration aftermath posted on Facebook on Thursday (he appears at the one-minute mark; screenshot below). His identity could not be verified.

Government officials denied the individual had any connection to the Cambodian or Korean militaries. “He could be the company’s security guard,” said Kheng, although he appears to be wearing a military uniform. Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, told GlobalPost: “The Cambodian military unit does not have Korean flag bearers. What you saw could be a private individual and not a unit from Korea.”

But others weren’t so certain. Over the past decade, the South Korean military has dispatched a handful of officers to advise the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, said one Korean scholar of Cambodia who asked not to be named.

And South Korea is a known patron of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, Brigade 70, despite reports of human rights abuses — including the shooting last week.

In 2011, for instance, Seoul helped fund a $28 million tank storage facility run by the brigade. But human rights groups accuse the unit of numerous abuses, including a 1997 grenade attack at an opposition rally that wounded an American aid worker and invited an FBI investigation.

Say Mony contributed reporting from Phnom Penh. Park Jeong-min contributed reporting from Seoul.

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The Cambodians who stitch your clothes risk everything for a liveable wage

As the government deploys AK-47s against protestors, an official asks, 'Do you want to wear clothes made by people who live in fear?'

BANGKOK, Thailand — In Cambodia, garment workers who stitch the jeans and hoodies that hang in American closets are demanding a raise. Instead, they’re receiving beatings and bullets.

In the past decade, clothing tagged “Made in Cambodia” has grown increasingly common in the malls of America. Shoppers who peel back lapels in H&M, The Gap, Urban Outfitters and other outlets will find many items sewn in the troubled Southeast Asian nation’s factories.

But this booming industry is now in crisis.

Rallies for pay hikes have descended into chaotic scenes in which protesting Cambodians, some armed with sticks and Molotov cocktails, have been shot dead by government forces with AK-47s. The death toll stands at four with nearly 30 injured, according to the Cambodian NGO Licadho.

Images of protesters pummeled and soaked in blood have circulated on Cambodians’ Facebook pages. Districts in the capital of Phnom Penh where garment stitchers work and live are now patrolled by Cambodia’s military, which is enforcing a ban on assembly.

Many factories are closed after workers have fled the city to their home provinces, said Mu Sochua, an activist and parliamentarian-elect with the nation’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

“The workers are now hiding. They’re living in fear,” Mu Sochua told GlobalPost. “Do you want to wear clothes made by people who live in fear?”

The striking workers’ primary demand is a raise. They want $160 per month — a near doubling of the current typical payout. The government has offered to raise the minimum wage but not beyond $100, a salary many workers deride as too low to cover rising costs of food, schooling and medical care.

“With the wages they get today,” Mu Sochua said, “they can’t even get three nutritious meals in a day.”

Stitching blouses and T-shirts for the West — namely America, the top destination for “Made in Cambodia” clothes — has helped transform the nation’s economy. According to the International Labor Organization, garment stitching is the country’s “largest industrial sector” employing 400,000 workers and accounting for $5 billion in annual exports, 35 percent of GDP.

Economists call the garment industry a “first rung” on the ladder from farm-based society to industrialization. Sewing jeans in a hot factory is dull and exhausting. But for many, particularly uneducated women born on farms, it is preferable to toiling in sun-baked rice paddies. Foremen may be fickle and cruel but so is nature.

Western clothing conglomerates favor Cambodia for the same reasons they like countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh. All are poor enough to provide a large pool of people who’ll work long hours for little money. But they’re not as unruly as, say, Somalia or Sierra Leone, where the chaos is so thick that trucks and ships can’t effectively get shipments to market.

Meeting the workers’ $160-per-month demand probably wouldn’t price multinationals out of Cambodia, said David Birnbaum, an Asia-based American garment industry consultant and five decade veteran of the trade. That wage is still competitive with China’s provincial minimum wage ($141) and that of the Philippines ($177).

“The problem is not raising to $160 per month,” Birnbaum told GlobalPost. “The problem is they feel $160 per month will give rise to future expectations that are unsupportable. There is a feeling in the industry that this is a bad road to follow.”

Part of the blame for Cambodia’s raucous strikes, he said, can be laid upon Cambodia’s unions, which have failed to secure ample wage hikes for workers through negotiations.

“This is because the Cambodian union system is corrupt,” Birnbaum said. “The factory management will take union leaders and say, ‘I think you should take a course in management. The course, by the way, is in Paris and lasts three years.’ They just pay off union leaders instead of paying the workers.”

“When unions don’t do their job,” he said, “people just go out on the street.”

The protesters’ brutal handling by Cambodian cops and troops is lamentable.

But it’s not entirely surprising.

Practically all of the country’s institutions — from courts to police — are dominated by a single party helmed by a strongman premier, Hun Sen, who has controlled Cambodia for 28 years. With Middle Eastern leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak deposed during the Arab Spring, he is now among the world’s longest-running non-royal heads of state.

Hun Sen has little patience for dissent. Asked if he might fall as did Arab Spring dictators in 2011, the premier is quoted by Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams, as saying, “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.”

Despite his dictatorial style, since the early 2000s Hun Sen has presided over a period of relative stability by Cambodian standards. Those, standards, however, are anything but typical. The country’s 20th-century history is a litany of massacres, starvation and foreign occupation.

In recent decades, Cambodia has suffered perhaps more than any other nation except for North Korea. During the US-Vietnam War, American bombers dropped more bombs by tonnage into Cambodia (then a haven for Viet Cong guerrillas) than all Allied Forces aircraft dropped during World War II.

The ensuing chaos gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, a hyper-communist regime that controlled Cambodia from 1975-1979. This violent revolution led by the infamous Pol Pot sought to remake society into a peasant utopia through brute force.

The result: nearly 2 million dead from starvation, killing and forced labor. Hun Sen, now 61, was a Khmer Rouge battalion commander who defected to help lead an invading Vietnamese-installed government that ran Cambodia from 1979 until the late 1980s.

Any future negotiations between the garment strikers and the government are complicated by the fact that protests are now aligned with Hun Sen’s major opposition: the Cambodia National Rescue Party. The political faction is actively protesting July 2013 elections that, according to party leaders, relied on fraud to nullify its rightful victory.

The party has co-opted the garment strikers’ campaign. The government, as the Phnom Penh Post reports, has since portrayed the strikers as a “group of anarchists” that have “used violence, burnt private property, intimidated investors ... and threatened to set fire to factories.”

The International Labor Organization has warned protesters that “violence and destruction of property are not legitimate tools of industrial action,” a Britishism that loosely translates to non-violent striking. During protests last week, bonfires and hurled stones heightened tension in police-patrolled factory zones in Phnom Penh.

“But you have to look at proportionality,” Mu Sochua said. “What is proportional between rocks — or even Molotovs — and AK-47s?”

“Now it’s totally confrontational,” Birnbaum said. “It’s a very complex and unfortunate situation. And it’s a shame because Cambodia is a poor country that has the potential for a very solid industry.”

But Mu Sochua, one of the opposition’s leading voices, insists the factory workers’ demands fit in with a louder chorus of voices demanding the end of Hun Sen’s rule. Roughly half the country’s GDP is supplied by foreign donors — including the US — and their aid, she said, is wrongfully propping up his regime.

“This is the crusade of a dictator. The crusade of a former Khmer Rouge. Does the international community want to continue to support this kind of dictatorship ... and support international buyers who make billions while our workers are deprived of basic rights?”


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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Cambodia Cracks Down on Protest With Evictions and Ban on Assembly

By THOMAS FULLER - The New York Times
Published: January 4, 2014

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Seeking to quash one of the most serious challenges to the nearly 30-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader, Cambodian authorities evicted antigovernment protesters on Saturday from a public square and banned all public gatherings as a court summoned two opposition leaders for police questioning.

After months of inaction in the face of growing public dissent to his rule, Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared to signal that he was entering a more aggressive posture toward his critics. The crackdown came after a clash on Friday between protesting garment workers and the Cambodian police that left four of the demonstrators dead. The workers have been at the forefront of growing protests against Mr. Hun Sen’s government.

Mr. Hun Sen’s party claimed victory in July elections, which the opposition and independent observers say were riddled with irregularities. Since then, the opposition has called for him to step down.

In a country with a history of violence against opposition figures, the two opposition leaders wanted for questioning, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, appeared to go into hiding.

“They are in a safe place,” said Mu Sochua, an opposition politician who was elected as a lawmaker in July but has boycotted Parliament along with the rest of the opposition.

Last weekend, the opposition staged a protest march of tens of thousands of people through the streets of Phnom Penh, an act of defiance on a scale rarely seen during Mr. Hun Sen’s more than 28 years in power. After the crackdown Saturday, the opposition announced it was canceling a march planned for Sunday.

In a statement, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party urged its followers to remain calm “while the party seeks alternative ways” to continue its campaign against Mr. Hun Sen’s government.

Many parts of Phnom Penh were unaffected by the crackdown, including the main tourist area along the Mekong River. But elsewhere, hundreds of police officers and soldiers blocked roads, broke up crowds of bystanders and cordoned off the public square, known as Freedom Park, where the protesters had been gathering.

The dispersal of demonstrators from Freedom Park by the police and others was highly symbolic. In 2009 the government officially designated the square as a place where Cambodians could express themselves freely, roughly modeling it on Speakers’ Corner in London. The square has been the center of protests led by the opposition since the elections in July. Protesters who have camped out there since mid-December have included Buddhist monks, elderly farmers and human rights advocates.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization, accused the government on Saturday of a “violent clampdown on human rights” and said protesters were chased out of the square by “thugs dressed in civilian clothes” who were armed with steel poles and other makeshift weapons, an observation corroborated by journalists who were present.

A number of protests during Hun Sen’s time in power have been broken up by shadowy groups. In 1997, a grenade attack on a protest led by Mr. Sam Rainsy left at least 16 people dead.

On Saturday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying that the eviction of protesters “was conducted in a peaceful manner without any casualties.” Recent protests, the statement said, “led to violence, the blocking of public roads and the destruction of public and private property,” an apparent reference to the clashes between garment workers and soldiers on Friday, among other recent episodes.

The statement said all protests and public assembly were banned “until security and public order has been restored.” It also advised “all members of the national and international community to remain calm and avoid participating in any kind of illegal activity that could have negative consequences on the national interests.”

Mr. Hun Sen has been credited with stabilizing the country after the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, whose genocidal policies led to the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians. But in recent years he has accumulated highly centralized power, including a praetorian guard that appears to rival the capabilities of the country’s regular military units.

Economic growth that has brought modernity and prosperity to Phnom Penh has exposed stark inequalities in the country, where well over a third of children are malnourished. Only one-quarter of the Cambodian population has access to electricity. The streets of Phnom Penh are shared by luxury cars and families of four squeezed onto dilapidated motorcycles.

Garment workers, who number in the hundreds of thousands, have been the most aggressive in seeking higher wages. Striking workers are demanding a doubling of the monthly minimum wage to $160 from $80, an increase that the industry says will make it uncompetitive.

In the clash on Friday, garment workers confronted officers with rocks, sticks and homemade firebombs. The police fired into the crowd with assault rifles, witnesses said. In addition to the protesters killed, at least 20 people were injured.

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