Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

People Power Can Change Cambodia

Guest Commentary
Published: March 31, 2008
Source: United Press International

CRANSTON CITY, R.I., United States, The ruling party of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in another politically motivated ploy to weaken rivals prior to national elections in July, arrested Tuot Saron of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party on March 18. He is now awaiting trial on trumped-up charges.

The authorities were planning to arrest at least two other party officials, whom they accused of intimidating and mistreating members of their own party who want to defect to the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

Rights watchdog Human Rights Watch said that such dubious arrests of opposition officials months ahead of an election "should set alarm bells ringing." Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, said, "This divide-and-conquer strategy is a well-known tactic of Prime Minister Hun Sen to subdue his opponents." He said human rights had been violated in every election cycle in Cambodia.

The only way Cambodians can break Hun Sen's divide-and-rule plan is to unite and launch a People Power initiative. The term typically refers to the popular protest movements in the Philippines that led to the ouster of two presidents, most famously Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Such a movement should unite all opposition parties and the people of Cambodia to end Hun Sen's authoritarian rule.

People Power is also a social movement that could challenge Cambodia's Constitution and seek greater freedoms and rights for its people. Such collective and united efforts would not only give opposition parties the power to fight the current communist rule, but also the strength to denounce any government that comes to power and fails to act on its election promises of creating social harmony and looking out for the people's welfare.

In the past, Hun Sen has rejected People Power as a possibility. However, the ability of monks to vote is a real concern to the ruling party. Monks form an integral part of Cambodia's social community. They influence the faith and political perceptions of the people, 95 percent of whom are Buddhist.

Holding elections is a good thing, but most government atrocities and human rights violations occur after the elections are over. People Power can police the actions of any party that comes to power. In the current scenario, the legislative and executive branches of the government are controlled by the ruling Cambodian People's Party, which is averse to People Power. There is growing concern within the party that a mass protest movement could arise and depose Hun Sen.

Cambodia's veneer of political pluralism grew thinner in 2007. Last year saw the recurring pillage of Cambodian people's land and other natural resources and the jailing of government critics, independent media, and political dissenters, all under the pretext that the groups were attempting to weaken civil society. The Cambodian authorities have never conducted any serious investigations into these matters. Instead, Hun Sen has continued to arrest officials from opposition parties that voice dissent and organizers who stage demonstrations.

Politics in Cambodia have never fully recovered from the events of 1997. On March 30 that year, a grisly grenade attack at an opposition party rally led by former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy left 16 dead and more than 150 injured. In July of the same year a coup -- described by Cambodians as an executive usurpation of power by Hun Sen against Prince Norodom Ranariddh -- cost hundreds of lives. What remained after the coup was a ruthless pattern of extrajudicial executions aimed at rooting out Ranariddh loyalists. General Ho Sok was fatally shot -- presumed executed within the perimeter of the Interior Ministry building. After elections in 1998, Hun Sen presumably ordered his bodyguards and special police force to open fire on over 10,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the National Assembly.

From 1992 until 2006, almost 4,000 activists and supporters of the FUNCINPEC party -- National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia -- Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, Sam Rainsy Party, and other small parties have been killed. At least 130 families have sought refuge in other countries, while 56 families still await political asylum in sympathetic countries elsewhere.

In 2007, in Preah Vihea province, 317 innocent families were evicted and their houses burned. In Phnom Penh, Chhruoy Changva, and Tonle Basac, military police officers arrested, razed, and burned houses displacing thousands of families. The officers claimed that the land belonged to private companies that would utilize it for public projects. Later, thousands of displaced families were relocated -- or rather dumped at sites outside the capital. These sites lacked drinking water and proper sanitation facilities.

Authorities in Phnom Penh and Battambang province seized all 2,000 copies of the inaugural issue of the monthly "Free Press Magazine" when it was distributed on Nov. 2, 2007. Fearing arrest, the magazine's editor-in-chief, Lem Piseth, and distribution director, Heu Chantha, have been in hiding, according to the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Hun Sen has been exemplary in demonstrating how a dictator should cope with the West. He has allowed the development of opposition parties, but murdered their activists. He has allowed opposition figures to emerge, but has not attempted to successfully co-opt them into his regime. He has allowed unions and human rights groups to exist, but prominent individuals within those groups have been killed. When critics or opposition parties increase their efforts to organize rallies and programs for the poor and victims of abuse, political oppression escalates as the elite dig in to defend their interests.

People Power is a challenge, not only to the ruling party but also for the people of Cambodia if they hope to change the leadership and the regime. It is time for Cambodians to conduct a countrywide survey on whether they want to keep the monarchy or become a republic.

Foreign aid, including from the United States, still makes up about 50 percent of Hun Sen's budget. While Hun Sen claims Cambodia is on its way to democracy, what is really happening is the Vietnamization of the country. It's a wake-up call for all Cambodians to gear up for People Power.


(Sourn Serey Ratha is chief of mission of the Action Committee for Justice and Equity for Cambodians Overseas, based in Rhode Island, United States. He was born to a farmer's family in Cambodia, earned B.A degrees in law and sociology in Phnom Penh and an M.A. in international policy from Mara University of Technology in Malaysia. He has been a social activist for his country on the national and international levels since 1997. ©Copyright Sourn Serey Ratha.)

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