Saturday, April 23, 2011

Promotion of Democracy

The International Republican Institute in Cambodia

I came across this article in the New York Times. On the surface, it may not pertain to Cambodia but it led me to take a closer look.


By Ron Nixon, April 14, 2011

WASHINGTON — Even as the United States poured billions of dollars into foreign military programs and anti-terrorism campaigns, a small core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states.

The money spent on these programs was minute compared with efforts led by the Pentagon. ……….They are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.
A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, ……….received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The work of these groups often provoked tensions between the United States and many Middle Eastern leaders.
The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.
“We learned how to organize and build coalitions,” said Bashem Fathy. Mr. Fathy attended training with Freedom House. He said, “This certainly helped during the revolution.”
But some members of the activist groups complained in interviews that the United States was hypocritical for helping them at the same time that it was supporting the governments they sought to change.
Diplomatic cables report how American officials frequently assured skeptical governments that the training was aimed at reform, not promoting revolutions.
Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt’s president, was “deeply skeptical of the U.S. role in democracy promotion,” said a diplomatic cable from the United States Embassy in Cairo dated Oct. 9, 2007.
For the full article visit:

The IRI website’s mission statement for Cambodia is just normal PR-speak for such an organization. I would assume intelligence services sometimes hide behind similar statements. I do not want to intimate that the IRI is involved in any clandestine activities but the article above points to some highly interpretable agendas for those organizations.

The IRI finances at least in part the CCHR and as recently as October 2010 supported Kem Sokha. As a matter of record, Kem Sokha resigned from his post in 2007 after employees of the CCHR accused him of corruption and embezzlement of funds. He is now president of the Human Rights Party and has lately been in the headlines for his mental acrobatics in pushing for a merger with the SRP and soliciting their party members to join the HRP at the same time.

The IRI is widely known among informed circles in Cambodia as the organization that publishes annual surveys of public opinion, which at least for the past few years have always shown a favorable rating of the CPP-led government. As a reminder, as this was reported in the press before, the one for 2010, published in January 2011, for instance, found among other things:

1. 76% believe the country is headed in the right direction
2. 72% and more of all age groups believed that it is headed in the right direction
3. Between 65% and 77% witnessed corruption
4. Only 0.4% reported that they had no rice to eat several times a week
5. 36% think border demarcation impacts the country the most

For item no. 5 it is not clear whether the Eastern or Western border is meant. I would venture to think that people were thinking of the Thai border with its periodic outbursts of fighting over the Preah Vihear issue rather than the SRP-alleged border encroachments by Vietnam.

The IRI regularly draws the ire for those surveys from especially the SR Party, which claimed the respondents were too afraid to voice their true concerns and no great credence should be attributed to the survey. The general state of the country, all the pressing problems notwithstanding, belies that claim, which has not deterred the SRP from reiterating it and similar claims at every twist and turn.

The question arose in my mind what exactly the IRI’s agenda might be in light of that article above. They have been active in Cambodia since 1992 and one of their aims was to strengthen political parties. It appears that they have failed miserably in that department. Both the SRP and HRP are in a dismal state, and by all appearances in no position to challenge the dominating role of the CPP. The latter, however, is stronger than ever. This might raise the question in some people’s minds whether the IRI rather helped that party entrench and solidify that party’s power to such an extent that it seems all but impossible to unseat them in any of the next elections, barring any unforeseen events. Seeing the reality on the ground, however, I don’t think that party needed any outside help. Its leaders know how to play the instruments of politics.

Sam Rainsy is hoping that events similar to the one in Tunisia and Egypt, and now in Syria and Yemen, may one day happen in Cambodia as well. By deductive reasoning from the NYT article, the IRI’s role might substantially be the same in Cambodia as in those Arab countries. In that case, Sam Rainy’s hope appears to have some substance. Does he know more than appears to the naked eye?

On the other hand, the article points out one very essential fact of the U. S.’s policies towards autocratic regimes. Strategically, they assist and support the regimes, whether it is for economic or military reasons. At the same time, as the purported ‘greatest’ democracy, they profess to foment and support democratic movements and reforms through other means, e. g. through NGOs like the IRI, which are funded by the U. S. Congress. In Cambodia, you have the IRI on the one hand, and joint military maneuvers of Cambodia’s RCAF and the U. S. forces on the other. Hun Sen’s son even attended West Point, from which he also graduated. Additionally, the U. S. Navy makes repeated friendly calls to Cambodia. All this indicates a rather close official relationship.

Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president, was ‘deeply skeptical of democracy promotion’. According to their website the IRI provides country-wide civic education, which indicates they are indeed involved in ‘democracy promotion’. In other words, the U. S. and the IRI believe this country needs democracy-building, despite the fact that, after all, Cambodia is a democracy, although the absolute majority of the CPP makes it a virtual one-party state. Civic lessons are a subject for middle and high schools. From my experience they are part of the curriculum in Cambodia. The question is whether these lessons do help the young generation really understand the principles and characteristics of a true democracy and whether they do need the help from organizations such as the IRI. Currently, it appears as though the people as a whole do not pay particular attention to these things. They are happy the way things are and value stability and economic progress more than truly democratic components and values.

Given the positive surveys and the virtually non-public profile of the IRI in Cambodia it appears that their work in the democracy-building process is directed not at helping to bring about (regime) change but to really enhance public awareness of the true characteristics of a democracy. That involves first and foremost a multi-party system. And this is exactly where Cambodia is lacking. Officially it does have a multi-party system but with the current opposition parties in such a disarray and without any true party leadership and mired in their internal power struggles, the IRI’s work looks to be a long and arduous task. Are they playing a similar role as in the Arab states, though? I don’t think so. First, Cambodia is not at the center of a volatile region such as the Middle East, in which the U. S. has vital interests. Second, I don’t think Cambodia would stomach any unsettling activities given that China and Vietnam have much greater influence on the government than the U. S.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

April 2555

The most prominent event in April is, of course, the Buddhist New Year Celebrations. This is the year 2555 on the Buddhist calendar. I remember a song entitled ‘In the Year 2525’ …. will man still be alive?
Well, we have 2011 already and despite some disasters of epic proportions, mankind so far managed to avoid annihilating itself.

Cambodians apparently don’t think much about these things. Their minds were on celebrating. As every year, Phnom Penh was largely deserted as many residents returned to their native villages to celebrate the New Year with their family. We are now in the Year of the Rabbit. People born in the Year of the Rabbit are articulate, talented, and ambitious. They are virtuous, reserved, and have excellent taste. Check your Chinese zodiac. Are you a rabbit?

My family and I spent the weekend, actually the whole week, with a couple of friends in our house in SHV. One day we went down to Ocheuteal Beach for a picnic, which was packed as was to be expected. Nevertheless, tables and beach chairs were still available, probably because not everybody wanted to shell out $20 for a place to sit. Beach restaurant owners always rent out their chairs on holidays (although we did get one for free for the International New Year). It makes sense, of course. People usually bring their own food and drink, so the restaurateur doesn’t really make any money on that so they charge for the chairs and tables instead; quite legitimate in my mind. $20 might seem a little steep though.

What was striking was the virtual absence of foreigners on the beach. Normally they stroll along the new boardwalk. It seems they don’t really want to mingle with Cambodians. Tourists probably have some reservations to go to places where they only see native faces, but what about the expats? I read somewhere (an expat wrote it) people can’t go there because of all the Cambodians. Now that is odd, isn’t it? What’s he doing here?

Here is a picture of the parking lot when we left the beach at 4 pm. It is not as full as on International New Year and the evening people hadn’t come yet, but nevertheless, it is a sign of incipient affluence, as limited as it may be and regardless of what the SRP makes you believe, but it is a sign nonetheless.

An American journalist wrote a book about Cambodia. Now the stupidest sentence I read was that Cambodians don’t smile. He was here in 2008. I am wondering where he went. But he should have seen the faces of the people at the beach or of the young people who pelted passing motorcycles with little water bombs. Besides that, the book is reportedly full of inaccuracies, though it also contains some detailed accounts of how the rich got rich in Cambodia. But any interested person knows that already. He even made the news on Bayon TV. Needless to say, he got blasted.

Speaking of the opposition, Sam Rainsy made headlines again in April. On one occasion he likened the CPP leadership with the Khmer Rouge, saying land expropriation occurs in a similar fashion now as during the KR period. Although the CPP spokesman dismissed this as remarks from a man who now knows he can never return to his homeland, I am sure they irked the mentioned people inside anyway. Someone said Sam Rainsy acts now exactly like his father who had become disillusioned with Sihanouk’s rule and spoke out against the king. We know the result. He mysteriously disappeared. SR has practically become a non-person anyway, which may render the same result. Let’s face it he is no Nelson Mandela who came back from political prison and led the nation to independence.

The other item with which he got into the news was his rejection of Kem Sokha’s party merger plans. He is right in that instance, of course. As mentioned in a previous post, Kem Sokha must be suffering from some sort of delusion. He must somehow be completely disconnected from the real world.

On another and non-political note, I heard from a friend there is a new development going up in SHV. The company BS Holiday Villa and Condominiums is selling weekend cottages starting at $15,000. I couldn’t believe it. It is supposedly located about one kilometer from the beach. That I wanted to see for myself. So one day I drove around looking for that development.

After some inquiries I found the Villa and Condo compound. Here is the entrance and what the smaller villas look like.

The price tags, however, started at $125,000. The location is anything but prime land. Following the road to Otres Beach you turn left instead of right at the junction to Otres Beach. The road goes up the hill a little and there it is. The rear of one side of the villas faces the sea, but the other one has no view at all. Next to it is an empty lot, which is intended for those weekend cottages, indeed starting at $15,000 for a simple wooden contraption, up to $60,000 for a more elaborate cottage. Again, the location simply sucks. That money buys you a lot of weekend hotel rooms outside the big holidays. I am not sure how many takers for the villas or for the cottages they corralled. Maybe I am too negative in my assessment of the situation, but to me this looks like another failed investment. I don't know what the "BS" stands for, though.

But I also thought the 300,000 or so ‘flat houses’ in Phnom Penh were a flop, and many of them were. That doesn’t keep one company from starting one new development after another in the Phnom Penh Thmey section of town (the Borei New Worlds).

Further up that road in SHV I spotted another one of those in my mind absolutely non-sensical developments. The picture speaks for itself. I didn’t bother to check the prices.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

What opposition?

Kem Sokha, the head of the Human Rights Party (HRP), recently stated that he would welcome any defector from the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) after Mao Monivann, an SRP MP, had done so and joined the HRP. Later it was clarified that he was expelled for non-conformism; that sure is a severe dereliction. Normally, opposition politicians defect to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the not so vain hope for plum jobs in the current power structure or sweet business deals.

At the same time, however, there are talks under way, currently stalled for several reasons, for the two opposition parties to merge so they can be a more formidable force in the next elections to be held in 2013. Kem Sokha’s invitation must have been a slap in the face of the SRP leadership. With his statement, he has shown a childlike naïveté. Who in his right mind would want to negotiate with such a back-stabber, that’s what it is called in other parts of the world? I guess even in the rough-and-tumble world of politics this is considered pretty much unacceptable and intolerable. It is no wonder then that the SRP doesn’t really want to share their bed with such an infantile megalomaniac.

But the SRP is no exemplary proponent of freedom and democracy in this Kingdom of Wonder either. As previously mentioned on this blog, they are rather headless right now. Sam Rainsy keeps calling from Paris espousing the same litany and travels all over the world pronouncing the imminent end of Hun Sen’s rule, using Libya as an example. Mu Sochua is equally absent many times traveling all over the world to all kinds of forums on behalf of her pet project – women’s rights, not that this is a bad thing per se, but it surely won’t help her party in Cambodia. Additionally, Sam Rainsy has been hit with another lawsuit in Cambodia – this time brought by Hor Nam Hong, similar to the one Hor Nam Hong brought in France. The only difference appears to be, if I read this right, the lawsuit here is criminal whereas in France it was civil. He errs too when he says he can’t be punished twice for the same matter. Anyway, all this has the trappings of dealing the final blow to His Excellency the Permanent Exile. One blogger, normally an ardent supporter of the SRP, even termed the current events in the party as self-destruction, accusing the second-tier leadership of being undemocratic, autocratic, self-dealing, favoritism, even of nepotism. Well, people who have followed my blog for some time will remember that back in 2009 I had quoted one Timothy S. Chhim, a Khmer-American attorney from New York, who had worked in the SRP election campaign and who had just brought forth those same observations. Are those SRP sympathizers finally waking up to reality?

Clearly, the opposition is in such great disarray, clueless of what to do, that they won’t even get that small number of seats in the next election unless, of course, they find a new leader who can put them back on the right course and who has appeal for the masses in Cambodia, not only for those geriatric overseas Khmer and xenophobes.

Here is a nice but late April fool’s Day hoax gleaned from Timothy’s blog:

Breaking NEWS FROM APFD news.

Fearing that Cambodia may turn to be Libya number 2 because of Sam Rainsy’s recent threat and prediction Hun Sen has decided to step down and is willing to leave the power to the brand new administration headed by the President of the United Cambodian Party.

The United Cambodian Party or UCP was formed freshly by leaders of all opposition parties to help rescue Cambodia from being swallowed by Vietnam.

Meanwhile many overseas Cambodians are busy applying for various positions including ambassadorial positions throughout the world.

The new president of UCP cannot be reached for comment.

AFPD News, of course, being April Fool’s Day News.