Billy Chia-Lung Tai
Right on the cusp of close of business time on Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFIC) released a 10-page paper titled To Tell The Truth. The missive went on an unprecedented attack against the “campaign of disinformation led by some foreign governments”.
The MoFIC set out, in eight broad headings, its responses to ongoing Western criticisms on Cambodia’s current human rights and democratic situations. Using language reminiscent of the Chinese rhetoric against “Western interference” in the early 1990s, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, and echoing some of the tweets made by the current president of the United States, the MoFIC sought to portray the Cambodian government as a victim of unrealistic and at times malicious Western “criticism, isolation, threats . . . and sanctions”, when it is trying its best to implement the goals and objectives of creating a legitimate “liberal and multi-party democracy” in Cambodia.
The paper, on initial inspection, appears to be well researched with extensive quotes to past statements made by international actors and references to comparable events and legal situations from around ASEAN and the world. However, it becomes apparent once one starts to read more closely that it is riddled with half and selective truths with important legal and human rights principles conveniently ignored or twisted.
The paper directed its first attack squarely at the UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith and the call that she made for the Cambodian government to stop blaming the current democratic and human rights problems on the “troubles of the last century”.
No one would deny the fact that Cambodia has suffered greatly at the hands of different regimes, including some ill-conceived foreign interventions in the past, but as we move further and further away from that chapter, it does become more and more difficult for the government to justify and blame all of their “institutional flaws and weak capacity” on the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent international isolation. This has been the rhetoric that has found favour with Prime Minister Hun Sen as he continues to blame the current human rights violations and governance issues on the legacy of the “Khmer Rouge regime”, as if the government itself is completely devoid of responsibility.
Next up is the recent amendment to the Law on Political Parties, where the paper refers to provisions of the new law designed to “prevent abuses that run counter to the fundamental principles of democracy”. Again, the MoFIC conveniently ignored other amended articles that appear to specifically target the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and its former leader Sam Rainsy.
The vague language used throughout the amended law, as pointed out by Forum Asia’s analysis, is best captured by the new Article 44 stating that any political party which “causes separation, sabotages democracy, undermines the state’s security, creates forces, incites people to national disharmony and is manipulated by foreign governments or political parties” could be disbanded by the Supreme Court. Given the lack of specific definition and the atrocious track record of how legal provisions have been used through the judiciary to persecute opposition politicians and NGO actors, it is difficult to see how such provisions could be “conducive” in fostering the “liberal multi-party democratic system”.
Perhaps most outrageously, the MoFIC defended the arrest and incarceration of the 26 “political prisoners” as individuals who have violated the law. This is an absurd assertion as all of the political prisoners referred to are either still in prolonged or indefinite pre-trial detention, where they have not been convicted of any crimes at all. Those who were convicted of crimes have been through a judicial process that cannot be held to international fair trial standards, as well as Cambodia’s own domestic laws.
In the worst case, the five current and former staff from NGO Adhoc have been held in pre-trial detention since May 2016, with the approval of the Supreme Court, without references to any legitimate legal reasoning as to why they continued to be held in indefinite detention. As we come up to the one year anniversary of their detention, is it any wonder that the international community cannot see the Cambodian judiciary as anything but a “political tool”?
As for the convicted parliamentarians, the MoFIC referred to the fact that if similar circumstances would occur in Europe the offending parliamentarian would likely be dealt with by the same criminal sanction. This may very well be true, but again, the paper conveniently ignores the crucial fact that parliamentarians in Cambodia enjoy constitutional immunity from arrest while they are in office. The government seems to be more than happy to apply the immunity to CPP parliamentarians, but conveniently ignores its existence for opposition lawmakers.
Finally, the paper cites the fact that Cambodia “ranks first among the 10 ASEAN countries” for press freedom, and that the two English dailies, The Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily, enjoy complete freedom in their publications. I would question the logic that just because one is not the worst at something, one can’t be criticised. Ironically, the “we are the best among the worst” rhetoric usually only gets employed by leaders from countries with poor human rights record.
I would further counter this argument by pointing out that most Cambodians who can vote cannot access the content of foreign media due to linguistic or other access barriers. I would therefore suggest that it is rather helpful to the CPP to maintain a perception of press freedom through not restricting foreign media outlets operating in Cambodia, but focusing its energy on severely restricting and censoring the Khmer language media outlets.
It is clear that this one-sided paper is not going to be taken seriously by its Western targets. Instead, what I believe is the more concerning aspect of this paper is that the “intended target” seems to be the local Cambodian (voting) population.
Similar to the strategy that was employed so successfully by the current US president during his campaign throughout 2016, this appears to be a CPP campaign through the hand of a government ministry to pander to the nationalist element of the voting population, to “muddy” the truths, to portray a hard-working government being continuously smeared by its Western counterparts while conveniently not taking any responsibility for its own corrupt and authoritarian actions.
Billy Chia-Lung Tai is an independent human rights and legal consultant.