If Prime Minister Hun Sen was not already adequately pleased with Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election last week, officials from his party have this week found one more reason for him to grin: the post-election protests in America.
The outbreak of demonstrations against Trump in cities including Los Angeles – where 185 protesters were arrested last week – has not gone unnoticed by CPP officials, who spent much of 2013 weathering US appeals to show restraint against post-election protesters.
On Facebook, some have even taken to directly comparing the situation to the protests in Cambodia after the disputed 2013 national election – which ended with troops beating protesters, military police shooting dead five workers and a ban placed on gatherings of more than 10 people.
“In Cambodia, people are starting to express concern about the human rights situation in America, while certain politicians and NGOs are very quiet,” Huy Vannak, an Interior Ministry undersecretary of state and the Cambodia News Channel’s editorial director, posted on Saturday.
“How interesting!” he wrote.
In another post, Vannak said he believed the US had lost its concern for rights. “America is the father of democracy! Now, human rights as a priority has been abandoned! All America cares about now is security,” he commented.
Unlike in Cambodia almost three years ago, there have been no deaths or claims of police abuse during the protests in the US – or of unconstitutional decrees banning protests – and most reports have instead painted a picture of a far more tolerant response from authorities.
“At one point, tensions rose as demonstrators knocked down a temporary fence protecting a construction site,” NBC reported of one Los Angeles protest on Friday. “A line of officers surged into the crowd, forming a line, keeping crowds from entering the area.
“Later in the night, [police] started releasing the crowd in small groups. Protesters walked out, hands up in the air.”
Yet details like those have not stopped comparisons of the police response in the US to that in Cambodia.
“The police in America are starting to beat down on the violent protesters, and the human rights people have lost their mouths as if they have been closed with a cork,” wrote Pheng Vannak, an Interior Ministry police official and prominent pro-CPP social media user who threatened to kill deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha two years ago.
“Some are acting like they are deaf mutes, some are acting like parrots and some are striving to close their eyes because they don’t have the courage to look. The reason is that those human rights people are afraid of losing their source of food,” he said.
Chea Chheng, who as a pro-CPP student leader in May 2013 led protests against then-UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi arguing that Cambodia has no rights problems, also appeared pleased to see that America, too, can have post-election protest problems.
“My skin’s crawling! In America they are also afraid of the ‘third hand’. Don’t forget to think about human rights!” Chheng wrote in a post yesterday, above a Fresh News report about police in Portland searching for the man who had shot a protester.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had prior to the 2014 crackdown threatened to unleash an uncontrollable and anonymous “third hand” to suppress opposition protesters – and it was plain-clothed thugs who stormed the opposition’s protest facilities during the crackdown.
Comparisons between the US and Cambodia have also not been limited to government officials.
Fresh News, a popular pro-CPP news site, also pinned an article about the Trump protests to the top of its homepage on Sunday and yesterday, while also running an op-ed titled: Why are human rights groups in Cambodia now totally silent, without even one word?
“The crackdown on illegal protesters by the police in America after the election, which has occurred over the past few days, is a window that shows very clearly the substance of human rights defenders,” it said, asking why US police had not been condemned.
The piece singled out “the opposition party, some civil society groups and those whose boast about themselves that they are ‘independent analysts’ and also . . . Radio Free Asia” as hypocrites for being silent about the police response to protesters in the US.
Koul Panha, executive director of local elections monitor Comfrel, said he could see little comparison between the lethal force employed in Cambodia in January 2014 and the way that the police in America have controlled the protests breaking out there.
“No, no, no, no,” Panha said. “We cannot compare. It’s impossible to compare that with Cambodia.
“Of course, everywhere, there are demonstrations and police have to encounter that, but it is usually proportional. If people try to do something more violent, it is proportional. They do not just go around the city killing people without any clear violence.
“In Cambodia, they are very sensitive about even very nonviolent demonstrations. They do not care about proportionality or about following the law.”
Chheng and Pheng Vannak did not respond to requests for comment, while Huy Vannak could not be reached. However, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who posted a Fresh News story about the protests on his Facebook, said recent events were not unusual.
“The behaviour of the authorities is to maintain peace and order, and they have the right to do that. They have to restrain them for public order. You can find that everywhere on Earth,” Siphan said. “It happens in Egypt and in Cambodia – and in the United States.”
US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said America had never been a stranger to large protests, and that any authorities overstepping the line in their policing would inevitably be subject to the law.
“As you know, we have a long history of social protest in the United States, which is not only tolerated by the authorities but protected. Our legal system is well equipped to handle any allegations of misconduct by protesters or police,” Raman wrote in an email.
No one has ever been held to account for the five garment workers shot dead by military police in January 2014 or for the severe beating of dozens of other protesters by elite paratroopers.