Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Commentary: Cambodia's extremist political culture

Lao Mong Hay is currently a senior researcher
at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong.

HONG KONG, Jul. 18
Column: Rule by Fear

At the end of May this year, the London-based environmental organization Global Witness published a report in which it held a "kleptocratic elite" close to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen responsible for illegal logging. A week later, instead of addressing the issues that had been raised, the Cambodian government simply banned all national media from publishing any extract from the report, and Hun Neng, Hun Sen's brother and provincial governor, was quoted as saying that "if (Global Witness staff) come to Cambodia I will hit them until their heads are broken."

Almost at the same time Supreme Buddhist Patriarch Tep Vong defrocked Tim Sakhorn, the abbot of a monastery, without due process as required in the Buddhist monastic code for disciplining monks. According to the code, an accused monk can defend himself before a community or committee of his peers. Without citing any evidence, Tep claimed that Sakhorn's "conduct was contrary to Buddhist discipline" and his misconduct impaired relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. He alleged that Sakhorn had been using the monastery for "propaganda" against Vietnam, a country with which the Cambodian government has close links.

Upon his defrocking, Sakhorn was taken away in an unmarked car and deported to Vietnam, his country of origin. He was deported without due process of law to investigate his alleged wrongdoings, in flagrant violation of his rights as a Cambodian citizen. Since this incident, the abbot has disappeared.

The drastic and arbitrary measures against Global Witness and Tim Sakhorn are but the latest developments in the history of extremism that runs deep in the political culture of present and past regimes in Cambodia. In 2006, Hun Sen refused to see Prof. Yash Ghai, the U.N. special representative for human rights in Cambodia, following the latter's negative report on human rights in the country. Instead, Hun Sen requested that the U.N. secretary-general dismiss Ghai. In June of this year, without denying the veracity of yet another negative report by Ghai, Hun Sen, who had refused yet again to see him to discuss the issues Ghai had raised, simply decided not to accept any longer his mandate in Cambodia and called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to review Ghai's appointment.

A few months earlier, alarmed by the extent of land-grabbing and the prospect of a "peasant revolution," Hun Sen declared a "war against land-grabbers." This issue could have been addressed through due process of law if the courts and other competent institutions were independent and functional.

Hun Sen in 2004 introduced an "iron fist" policy, allegedly aimed at ridding the judiciary of corruption, and a few judges and other judicial officers were tried. However, they were acquitted for lack of evidence. This drastic measure followed his 1999 order to rearrest people released by the courts in defiance of the principle of res judicata, i.e., double jeopardy. No remedies have been proposed to correct this arbitrary use of the justice system.

In March 1997, Sam Rainsy, currently the opposition leader, and his followers staged a peaceful demonstration against the "communist judiciary." The government did not like their action, and four grenades were thrown at the demonstrators, killing 19 protestors and injuring more than 100. In July of the same year, the two ruling coalition parties at the time, the Cambodian People's Party and FUNCINPEC, whose relations had been tenuous over sharing power, resorted to arms to fight each other in the streets of Phnom Penh, resulting in the annihilation of FUNCINPEC as a political force, despite their pledge under oath not to resort to force to settle disputes.

Extremism was also the hallmark of previous regimes. Prince Sihanouk, when he was head of state in the 1960s, suddenly decided, without prior planning, to nationalize the banking and other important sectors of the economy following a private bank scandal in which the government lost a substantial deposit. At the same time, he alleged that U.S. aid and the "dollar god" were corrupting influences and, as a measure to end that corruption, refused to receive substantial U.S. aid. He also cut off diplomatic ties with the United States. All these measures and others eventually led the country into turmoil and to Sihanouk's downfall.

In 1970, Gen. Lon Nol resorted to force, instead of peaceful means, to rid the country of the sanctuaries and bases of communist Vietnamese forces in the border regions, thereby engulfing the country in the Vietnam War. He also made a drastic decision to overthrow Sihanouk and the monarchy.

The Khmer Rouge emerged as the victors of that war in 1975, communist rulers who went to even much greater extremes. They were not happy, for example, with Cambodia's feudal, corrupt and unjust society at the time and rushed to destroy it. They were not happy with townsfolk and were not able to feed them. They thus forced them to the countryside at gunpoint to till the land and grow their own food until their death. They also alleged that money was corrupting. They therefore just abolished it. Furthermore, if they were not happy with someone, they simply killed him.

Now Cambodia has swung from extreme communism to capitalism which, in the absence of the rule of law, has gone to the opposite extreme. In the society destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, the biggest landholding was 132 hectares, and large landholdings were rare. Now Cambodian society has quickly become a feudal society ruled by a corrupt oligarchy under a democratic cloak in which the powerful and their cronies own up to tens, or even hundreds of thousands, of hectares of land during a time when the population has doubled and landlessness has increased. Cambodia's countryside very much resembles the English countryside during the period of enclosure.

Ironically, even Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge ideologue now about to face trial for the Killing Field atrocities, has said that the society he and his comrades destroyed was better than the present one.


(Lao Mong Hay is currently a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)

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