The Harish and Ernie show

Vietnamese voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Hanoi in 2011. Vietnam voted in elections with only one party on the ballot.   AFP
Vietnamese voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Hanoi in 2011. Vietnam voted in elections with only one party on the ballot. AFP

The Harish and Ernie show

Readers of this column know that when it comes to aiming a kick at the wedding tackle of the region’s high and mighty, this writer has few peers.

So keep that in mind and squash any notion that some of the comments that follow might appear to be lickspittle sycophancy of the worst kind.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Capiche? Right, let’s now launch into what might be called the Harish & Ernie Show.

I first met my old mate Harish Mehta in Singapore 23 years ago when he was a journalist for the Business Times and his main regional focus was investment prospects in Vietnam.

Occasionally, he also wrote about Cambodia and years later he penned what was claimed to be the first biography of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Ten days ago, this newspaper published an interview with Harish and his petite wife Julie, who co-authored a new second edition, aptly titled Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen.

The book was something of a curate’s egg and the reviews were mixed.

But that’s fine, we authors expect that kind of thing. After one of my plays opened, the review next day was headlined “Theatre at its Worst”.

Some people have no appreciation of comedic parody. Harish and I do, and we take such critical reviews to the bathroom and put them behind us.

So, good on you, Harish. Samdech Decho loyalists will devour your polished tract, though the same cannot be said about your co-star for this column, Ernest Bower, who also happens to be a good mate of mine.

I first met Ernie, the Southeast Asia program director at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, at the Oceanaire restaurant on F Street, not far from the White House.

He became a frequent lunch companion and a tried and trusted friend with arguably the best bank of contacts in America and across this region.

Why, then, has he just co-authored an article with a CSIS colleague Amy Killian that is utterly at odds with Harish’s paean?

It is not easy to explain, especially in the current pre-election climate when officials urge us to remember that Cambodians are simple people unused to calmly rationalising divergent opinions.

That said, let us consider Ernie’s robust commentary which appeared last week on the CSIS website, where you may check it out assuming it is still accessible here.

The introduction, which asserts that in recent years there has been a kind of ASEAN spring, is perfectly valid.

“Citizens and voters across Southeast Asia have told their governments about their new and rising expectations for empowerment, governance, and rule of law,” Ernie writes.

Fair enough, yet bizarrely he cites Vietnam as among those enjoying this springtime of liberty, while he claims Cambodia is “at the top of the list” of those bucking the trend.

One wonders if he remembered the number of opposition parties that exist in Cambodia? Never mind if they are minuscule or ruthlessly monitored, there are 14. In Vietnam, there are zero.

Did he tot up all the Vietnamese academics, lawyers and journalists languishing in jail because they proposed a peaceful evolution to a multi-party system?

Did he recall that all of our dear neighbour’s newspapers are owned and run by the Vietnam Communist Party and are rigorously censored?

And did he ask NGO leaders and diplomats to compare freedom of expression and the right to publicly criticise the government here and in Vietnam?

If he had, he would not have said that when it comes to democratisation, “Cambodia is not moving forward with its ASEAN colleagues and instead is home to a political instability that should concern its neighbours”.

Give me a break, Ernie, you make Harish’s book seem objective.

This is not some Laurel & Hardy “Impress the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Show”, it is serious business.

And Cambodians deserve better from both of you.