A couple of days ago Prime Minister Hun Send referred to the ouster of the Tunisian president Ben Ali when he said that similar unrest would not be tolerated in Cambodia. He would ‘close the door and beat the dog’. Many scratched their heads wondering what he actually meant, at least those people who are unfamiliar with the phrase. This is actually a Chinese saying that found its way into other Asian languages as well. It was widely used after the Tiananmen massacre and Tibetan unrest in China when the Chinese government put restrictions on free movement and the flow of information at the time, trying to shut out the world.
This is what the Phnom Penh Post reported about Huns Sen’s remarks:
Also today, Hun Sen lashed out an unnamed critic that he said had advocated a popular revolution in Cambodia on the model of Tunisia, where rioting and protests forced out long-time ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last week.
“There is a guy saying that Cambodia should foment a Tunisia style-revolt. I would like to send you a message that if you provoke or foment a Tunisia style-revolt, I will close the door to beat the dog this time,” Hun Sen said, arguing that the North African nation faces “the prospect of civil war” as it attempts to hold together its fragile interim government.
“This guy, if he enters Cambodia, will face arrest. This guy has a bald head. This guy says Cambodia should look to the style of Tunisia: if you dare to gather [the people] to do that please come, don’t say such silly words … I will beat you on the head.”
It was not clear to whom the prime minister was referring.
Obviously, Hun Sen was talking about Dr. Lao Mong Hay who had encouraged Cambodians to follow the Tunisian example. This Dr. Lao is a well-known Cambodian intellectual and activist living in Hong Kong who, of course, is banned from entering Cambodia due to his anti-government pronouncements that subliminally call for the ouster of the regime even by unlawful means. He also happens to be a staunch royalist and is a little out of tune with the times. In our Western understanding, there is only one way to bring about a change of government, that is, at the ballot box. However, many Western governments nevertheless encourage regime change in brutal dictatorships or governments that are not beholden to their Western interests, or as they like to put it ‘democratic ideals and principles’. Sometimes they even invade a country to bring about that regime change, like in Iraq, or in Grenada in the 1980s. On the other hand, it is quite comprehensible that a repressed people will rise up, and for the most part, it will have the free world’s support. But do we have these conditions in Cambodia?
Hun Sen reiterates that he won fair and square in the elections and the only way he will leave office is if he is defeated in elections. Radio Free Asia got a quick response from the government when an op-ed there criticized Hun Sen on his 26th anniversary as Prime Minister and asked that he step down. The government pointed to the U. S. and European Union’s statements that the 2008 elections, in fact all previous elections, were freer and fairer than the previous one. He is the democratically elected leader of the country.
Do we have a repressive regime in place here? According to Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch Asia, who wrote the op-ed for RFA, yes. I believe, however, Brad Adams has lost his ability for independent and objective observation. He hears or sees Hun Sen, he sees red. The fact is that according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s report on the state of the world’s democracies, Cambodia is a hybrid democracy and occupies rank 100 among the 187 nations listed. What does that mean? Cambodia has all the trappings of a democratic state but the ruling party enjoys an absolute majority that would even enable it to change the constitution. Essentially, it has become a one-party state, where the opposition parties play no significant role in the country’s political life. The King is the head of state without power as in the U. K., for instance. The Prime Minister wields all the power based on his party’s majority. By all appearances, the Hun Sen is rather autocratic and his word is just like the law. He is famous for micromanaging the state’s affairs. He will attend the opening of even the smallest road, as he did this Saturday when he came to the inauguration of a small paved side road of Hanoi Road in Phnom Penh Thmey. (Of course, this also enhances his visibility with the general population and earns him the gratitude of the Okhna who most likely footed the bill.)
There were some misguided incidents with the press and opposition politicians, e. g. Mu Sochua, and at least the English-speaking press freely reports that some judges are afraid of adverse consequences if they rule against the ruling party’s interests. This does cast doubts on the judiciary’s independence.
Nevertheless, the press enjoys the most freedom among most of the SE Asian countries. Notwithstanding the fact that some police hired for the protection of a private construction site overstep their authority as in the case of the PPP reporter who got beaten up, the press can go about its business freely unless they publish patently false stories or slanderous rumors. You can’t just accuse politicians of corruption without hard evidence. Also, the Khmer-language press is notorious for printing uncorroborated stories, or even trying to extort money from individuals for not printing negative stories about them. So there is a flipside to this coin as well.
The best English-language paper in the country, the Phnom Penh Post, is a prime example of what a newspaper should print. They also report and print stories critical of the CPP, the Prime Minister, or any other politician for that matter. I have not seen or heard any repercussion or attempts to silence the paper. Of course, they never engage in rumormongering. They abide by the New York Times’ motto: ‘All the news that is fit to print.’ This is a maxim the Khmer-language newspapers should engrave in their editors’ minds. A lot of the conflicts with an admittedly press-sensitive government could be avoided.
Despite the recent hullabaloo about the shutting down of a domain, the internet is freely accessible. Sometimes, the powers that be seemingly try to please the Prime Minister and his wife by trying to control content. Madame Bun Rany is rather puritan in her views and wants to ban all things erotic from cell phones and the internet. That, of course, is a hopeless undertaking in today’s technological world. Consequently, any attempt to block sites will prove futile, as people will always find a way to circumvent the blockage, with or without the help of some savvy hackers at home and abroad. The flow of information cannot be stemmed. This is a fact that the government seems to have internalized already. You can buy any foreign newspaper or magazine – uncensored, as opposed to neighboring countries.
In Tunisia, the masses protested in the face of economic hardships, high unemployment, and rising prices while the accumulation of the Ben Ali family’s wealth continued unabated; these protests were obviously triggered by Wikileaks cablegate and the self-immolation of a street vendor. Global Witness reported allegations how the Prime Minister Hun Sen’s clan amassed fortunes by selling out the country. Ministers, generals, and high-ranking officials are all seen to be rich. GW and other organizations accuse them of having gained their riches through corruption, theft, or other illegal means. Whatever truth there is to these allegations and accusations, could this lead to the same demonstrations as in Tunisia? I don’t think so and this is where Dr. Lao errs in believing that such an upheaval could or should happen in Cambodia.
I did business in and with Tunisia and know the country, although it certainly has undergone some change in the last decade. Dr. Lao should have checked the CIA World Factbook before making such a recommendation and drawing the ire of the Cambodian government. Although it gained independence from France in 1956, the same time period as Cambodia, its history is vastly different from Cambodia’s; most significantly, it never went through a dark ages period. The population is generally more educated and affluent than Cambodia’s. Prosperity has penetrated many levels of society. Their contact with the modern and western world came early with the advent of mass tourism, one of the major industries in Tunisia. This happened almost along the same time line as the development of Thailand, which also began in earnest around the early 1970s, after the Vietnam war and the influx of tourists from Western countries. Cambodia lags about 30 years behind in this.
Despite some organizations’ and people’s misgivings, justified or unjustified, about the current government, it has proven to be positive for the country as a whole. It has brought stability, peace, and a good environment for investment. People power as in the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine will not happen here. The older people are tired of unrest and instability, the younger people want to enjoy life. The mentality of the people is just not conducive to uprisings. This is seemingly what politicians or activists like Sam Rainsy or Dr. Lao overlook. Being a baby-boomer and having always been intensely interested in current affairs, I cannot remember one instance in all those post-war years where extra-parliamentary opposition has succeeded in bringing about regime change without the help of the entrenched power structure, or in some cases with outside help. Of course, if you let agitators into the country, you might open the floodgates. Sorry, folks, but those people better stay out. It is not good for the country. If you want to beat the system, work within the system. If you preach democratic principles, please apply them too.