Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, August 31, 2012

Cambodia steps up Internet surveillance

By Clothilde Le Coz Aug 30, 2012 2:42PM UTC

As Burma loosens its grip on the media, Cambodia has begun to rank high among the countries repressing internet and telephone freedom in the name of national security, safety and social order. It is still not comparable to China or Vietnam, but Cambodia is moving in the wrong direction.

Last February, the Kingdom of Wonders adopted an “inter-ministerial circular”, according to which every Internet cafe in the country has to set up surveillance cameras and any phone shop has to register callers using its services. According to an unofficial translation obtained by the Asian Correspondent, the circular is meant to “promote protection of national security, safety and social order for the country”. Even though nothing has been implemented thus far, the circular is a threat to every phone and Internet user in the country.

This is not a law. The authorities simply decided to do whatever they want to regulate online content in the country only because it could violate khmer culture,” stated Norbert Klein, the “founding father” of the Internet in Cambodia and now the head of the Cambodia chapter of the Internet Society. To him, the circular is a “means of intimidation for Internet users more than a means to protect their safety “.

In 1990, Norbert Klein connected Cambodia to the web at the back of what is today an always-full restaurant in the heart of Phnom Penh, where NGO workers and the expat population mix. At that time, he wanted to help one of his colleague to complete an online fellowship. With a Colombian email program and a Singaporian modem it took them weeks to get connected and finally read and receive emails. Moreover, since the connection was asking for stable and steady supply, the electricity was generated by a Vietnamese truck battery stationed outside the house. At that time, never Klein would never have imagined that the Internet in Cambodia could deal with censorship. After all, the only censor they faced in 1990 was the price: $5 per minute of connection.

But then came human rights defenders like the Venerable Loun Sovath using online tools to advocate for a cause, scandals arose when the behaviors created by the Internet attempted to cult and religion and the feared Jasmine Revolution started in neighbouring countries. As of today, Cambodia has a bit more than 3% of its population online with one of the quickest rates of growth in the region since it is more than twice the number registered in 2011. These are some of the reasons behind the Internet crackdown, which is nothing but a simple agreement that the government can claim at any moment and that consulted no elected member.

According to the inter-Ministerial circular signed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Post and Telecommunications, “past experiences […] have shown that criminals and offenders always used telecommunications services such as mobile phones, fixed phones, VoIP and Internet as a means to commit terrorism, trans-boundary crimes, robberies, kidnapping, murders, drug trafficking, human trafficking, economic offenses, illegal installment of and illegal corporation of all forms of telecommunications service, broadcasting of obscene pictures and debauchery, which affect national customs, traditions and social good moral values.” For these reasons, “all locations serving telephone and Internet services shall be equipped with closed circuit television camera and shall store footage data of users for at least 3 months. Telephone service corporation owners along public roads shall [also] record National Identity Cards of any subscriber”.

As of today, there are more than 19 million sim card holders in Cambodia. And it is still very difficult to get an ID card for Cambodian nationals. For the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, which organizes “good governance” forums in the country, the first obstacle to possess a national id card is the price. There is no fixed economic value to it and it can vary from $2.5 to $50.

According to the Ministry of Interior there are 9,27866 Cambodian holding ID cards. What does this circular mean for the almost ten million Cambodians with sim cards but no ID ?

The will to control telecommunications is not new

This February circular is not the first attempt to control the use of telecommunications. However, it shows once again that the Ministry of Information is excluded from the decision and seems to be less relevant when it comes to regulation. In 2010, the same Ministry of Post and Telecommunications attempted to get the monopoly over the Internet cable industry in the country. There are about 30 internet service providers in the country and 10 phone operators, which causes a loss of profit to the state-owned services. To solve this, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications attempted to direct all international internet traffic through Telecom Cambodia, which would have charged other operators a transmission fee. However this time, because the ministry of information went publicly against it, it had to be abandoned.

Moreover, it has only been five years since the use of the peer-to-peer software Skype has been authorized. Even if it was possible to connect to it, it was still illegal for the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications was loosing money. This sounds like a false argument since the people using Skype were the ones who could not afford a phone call. There was a Cambodian version of Skype but its lack of popularity among the high ranking society and its difficulty to be used made the government give it in.

For most of human rights defenders, Internet remains a free space where sensitive topics can be discussed. For Chak Sopheap, online activist and contributor to the network Global Voices online, Internet is a “digital democracy”, which should be put in place in reality, outside of a computer screen. Internet activists in Cambodia are being more effective to advocate for themselves and denounce human rights violations. For example, when Loun Sovath records them, he get a double answer; the international community takes an interest while the Cambodian authorities arrest him. “Internet users are the ones that the government fears the most”, continues Klein. This is also confirmed by Ou Virak, from the Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR), according to whom “activists use more the Internet during protests for example. They can advocate for themselves online, especially through Facebook. Before the Internet became popular, media were the target of the government. Today, activists are”.

This circular is not only limited to online and mobile content and usage but also to radio stations since “any radio communication wave system corporation shall require permission from the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications”. The radio’s mission is mainly defined as a “public service”. Therefore, the decision maker should be an institution and not a private corporation. This could therefore apply to any independent media trying to set up as a private company to own airtime and a frequency.


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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Warning of Return to Violence

Radio FREE Asia

UN special envoy Surya Subedi warns of possible unrest in Cambodia if the authorities refuse to embrace election reforms.

Cambodia may plunge into violence if it does not reform the current electoral system to allow for fair and free elections, Surya Subedi, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, has warned in a report.

He said there are "major flaws" in the administration of elections in Cambodia and called for "urgent and longer-term reforms" needed to give Cambodians confidence in the electoral process and in the National Election Committee (NEC), which organizes and manages polls.

"It is regrettable," he said, that most of the proposals by bilateral and multilateral agencies to reform the electoral process based on shortcomings identified in previous elections "remain unimplemented" by the Cambodian authorities.

In a report to be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva at its upcoming September meeting, Subedi said that he is "concerned by the capacity gaps that persist in the electoral process."

"If the electoral process is unable to command the trust and confidence of the electorate, the very foundation of the Cambodian political and constitutional architecture embodied in the Paris Peace Agreements will be shaken and the country may run the risk of a return to violence," he said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's government "must therefore do its utmost to avoid such a situation," he said in the report released this week.

Exile return

Subedi also called for a "political solution" to enable exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia "to play a full role" in politics.

Saying that Sam Rainsy has been convicted on charges that are allegedly politically motivated, Subedi added that "a concerted effort by the ruling and opposition parties towards reconciliation is in the interests of stronger and deeper democratization of Cambodia," especially ahead of the 2013 elections.

Sam Rainsy, who is currently involved in efforts to merge Cambodia’s two key opposition parties into a united alliance against Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), went into exile in 2009 after leading a border protest and was convicted in absentia on charges of incitement and damaging property.

He has called his conviction groundless and unacceptable.

Subedi's proposal for electoral reforms was shrugged off by the national electoral body.

Tep Nitha, General Secretary of the NEC, said on Tuesday that Subedi’s report "sounds like he is only listening to the opposition party and certain NGOs rather than reflecting the NEC’s current work."

Tep Nitha claimed that Subedi’s recommendations had effectively been implemented, including the part about making the electoral panel independent and autonomous, and guarantor of voters’ rights.

He said Sam Rainsy's absence "will not affect the process of the elections and democracy in Cambodia.”

Recommendations 'necessary'

But the Executive Director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Koul Panha, stressed that all of Subedi’s recommendations "are vital and necessary" for electoral reforms.

"And the most urgent and immediate reform to be done prior to the national election in 2013 is the full guarantee of voters’ rights," he said.

In his report, Subedi cited a host of issues that needed to be addressed before parliamentary elections scheduled in July 2013. Among them:

== The NEC should have independent and autonomous status in the constitutional and legal structure of Cambodia, with its own independent budget allocated by the parliament.

== There should be consensus among the major political parties represented in the parliament on the appointment of the president and members of the NEC and the provincial election committees.

== There is a need to amend the law and to create another institution, such as a special election tribunal or election court within the judicial structure of Cambodia or a special election tribunal within the National Constitutional Council to resolve election-related disputes, rather than using the NEC itself to do so.

== All major political parties should have fair and equal access to the mass media to convey their messages to the electorate.

== All opposition parties must be free to organize and campaign without fear and hindrance. The Special Rapporteur "has been informed of cases of harassment and intimidation of people attending party political meetings of opposition parties by government officials and the secret police."

== There should be a more effective, impartial and non-discriminatory procedure for the registration of voters in Cambodia.

Subedi also cited a petition directed to him from a Cambodian citizen who had expressed "frustration with the existing electoral process.

The Cambodian wrote that "if the current state of affairs continued, the ruling party would win the elections forever and that there was no hope for other political parties."

Reported by Neang Ieng for RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

Copyright © 1998-2011 Radio Free Asia. All rights reserved.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cambodia’s Hun Sen Has a Secret Plan

By James Hookway

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives before a meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh - Reuters

Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen says he has a “secret strategy” to prevent his Southeast Asian nation from being dominated by its much larger neighbors: casinos.

In a five-hour, 20 minute address to Cambodia’s parliament Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen explained that his plans to turn this country of 15 million people into a global gaming hub is in fact part of a longer-term strategy to prevent neighbors such as Vietnam and Thailand from encroaching on Cambodian turf.

Border disputes are a recurring problem in the region, with Thai and Cambodian troops occasionally locking horns in Cambodia’s east. A contentious border demarcation process with Vietnam is still under way, and Mr. Hun Sen’s opponents have accused him of giving away territory to regional rivals, especially Vietnam, in the past. But on Thursday he took them to task.

“I don’t like casinos, but the biggest goal for giving permission to build casinos is to protect the border,” Mr. Hun Sen, 61 years old, told lawmakers in a marathon address, which was estimated by aides to be his longest yet. The predominantly Buddhist country now has more than 25 casinos, with more gaming tables on the way. “One can remove border markers, but one can’t remove five-storey hotels. Don’t be stupid.”

Worse, Mr. Hun Sen said, his critics had forced him to reveal his clandestine security plan. “This should be a secret strategy to protect the nation,” Asia’s longest-serving leader barked in his televised speech, which was mandatory viewing for civil servants, who watched their leader speak without breaks or taking questions.

It’s unclear how firmly Mr. Hun Sen’s tongue was planted in his cheek. His long and often rambling speeches frequently invite comparison with other long-winded leaders, such as Fidel Castro or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and he often upbraids erring ministers on live television.

Earlier this year, he also lashed out at foreign correspondents for daring to suggest that Cambodia might use its role as host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year to prevent the trade and security-bloc from taking a common stand against one of Cambodia’s main allies, China.

“I think he was being facetious” when unveiling his secret casino plan, said Ben Lee, an analyst with Macau-based consultancy iGamix.

It wasn’t immediately possible to reach a Cambodian government spokesman, and Vietnamese government officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Cheam Yeap, a member of Mr. Hun Sen’s party in the legislature, said the casino plan “is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own strategy to protect the border. The prime minister is serious with his speech.”

There has been an extraordinary surge in new casinos opening their doors for business in Cambodia in recent years. Its government is attempting to attract a slice of the gaming money that has made Asia a new global center for the industry, and Cambodia’s borders are lined with casinos catering to Thai and Vietnamese gamblers who are prohibited from gambling in their own countries.

Opponents regularly criticize Mr. Hun Sen for promoting casinos for visitors. Many Cambodians, who are legally barred from gambling, see the joints as morally degrading.

Yet the industry has also created thousands of jobs in a country that is still striving to overcome of the chaos of the 1970s, when the former Maoist Khmer Rouge regime killed or contributed to the deaths of an estimated 2 million people. The country’s casinos range from hard-scrabble affairs in border outposts to palatial buildings in Phnom Penh, such as the riverside NagaWorld resort, which is adding 220 rooms to its existing 500.

The government says gaming generated around $20 million in tax revenues last year, up 25% from the year before, and which is re-invested in health care and education.

Authorities are now eyeing more casino developments in other tourist areas, including the towns of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville as Cambodia hopes to follow in the path of other gaming centers such as Macau, which last year pulled in $33.5 billion in gaming revenue, more than the five times the amount raked in in Las Vegas.

It is unclear how successful Cambodia will be in capturing a larger slice of this market, though squeamishness over the suitability of gaming in a predominantly Buddhist society doesn’t appear to be getting in the way of the country’s longer-term commercial and, possibly, national security goals.

Correction & Amplification:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Cambodia is a land-locked nation.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Cambodia’s political merger: maximising the potential

By Ou Virak is President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights
The Phnom Penh Post

The announcement last week from Manila that Cambodia’s two largest opposition parties – the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP) – are to merge under the banner of the Democratic Movement for National Rescue (DMNR) represents a great sign of hope for Cambodia’s beleaguered democracy.

For the first time in two decades, the Cambodian electorate may be given the option of a genuine and viable alternative to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Human Rights Party president Kem Sokha (2nd L), acting SRP president Kong Korm (C) and SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua (R) attend a meeting of the newly formed Democratic Movement for National Rescue party in Phnom Penh on Monday. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

However, to attract Cambodia’s disenchanted electorate back to the polling booth – turnout for this year’s commune elections was just 60 per cent compared to 87 per cent ten years ago – and to maximise its chances of winning next year’s general elections, the DMNR should take the following steps:

Put party policy before personalities: Political parties in Cambodia have traditionally been projections of party leaders – not only Hun Sen’s CPP but also Kem Sokha’s HRP and Sam Rainsy’s eponymous party. Policy issues are relegated, with voters encouraged to vote for individual personalities rather than the parties that offer them the most.

The merger announcement indicates that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha – president and vice president of the DMNR respectively – are willing to let their personalities take a back seat to the profile of the new party. It is essential, however, that the DMNR can fulfil this profile.

It must ensure that its members take central stage and are allowed to help determine strategy and policy.

Move to the middle: In order to present itself as a viable alternative to the incumbent CPP, the DMNR must reach out to a broader section of society than the SRP’s and HRP’s current support base. While the DMNR should maintain the social goals of those parties, including reform of the country’s land sector, it should also expand its horizons and promote policies that will attract the business vote.

One way of doing this is to propose policies that appeal to small and medium-sized businesses: a pro-business approach which counters the CPP’s elitist policies that favour a small number of well-connected tycoons.

De-radicalise: The marginalisation of the opposition over the past 20 years has given rise to a tendency to promote radical causes to attract voters’ attention and score cheap political points. The most obvious example is the tendency of some opposition members – most famously Sam Rainsy – to chastise the CPP’s links to Vietnam and condemn the loss of Cambodian land to Vietnam.

While such reactions may have some validity, they have not generally been constructive or discerning. If the DMNR is to be truly democratic, it must steer clear of anti-Vietnamese sentiments.

Engage Cambodia’s youth: The CPP has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years. The party leadership should be congratulated for its role in defeating the Khmer Rouge and for bringing peace and stability to this country. Rather than dwelling on these points, however, it is time for Cambodian politics – and the DMNR – to move on, reach out to the youth, so many of whom were born after the terrors of the 1970s and to whom the CPP’s achievements hold less resonance, and offer a vision whereby all sectors of society have a role to play and dreams to realise.

Promote gender equality: The CPP is now significantly outperforming the SRP and HRP in the area of female representation in politics. In the recent commune elections, 21 per cent of the CPP’s elected candidates were women, while only 11 per cent of the SRP’s elected candidates were women.

The HRP brought up the rear with a shameful 1.5 per cent. If the DMNR is to take office, it will do so riding the crest of a wave of hope and excitement. No such hope and excitement can exist if the new party is just another old boys’ club with the same backward patriarchal attitudes that are manifested in the SRP and HRP.

The DMNR must overcome these shortcomings and look to further gender balance in politics. It must listen to female perspectives from around the country and empower women to run as candidates in next year’s general elections.

Decreases in voter turnout in recent years have been testament to the growing conviction among the electorate that election results are a foregone conclusion and that real change can never really come from the ballot box.

For too long, the opposition has offered little more than a stamp of legitimacy for elections that they never really stood any chance of winning. After years of talks, the merger of the opposition parties represents the most exciting event in Cambodian politics for a long time.

These two erstwhile opponents must now seize their opportunity and offer the Cambodian voter – and the youth in particular – a viable alternative to the entrenched CPP for the first time in 20 years.

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