When a senior government official on Wednesday said Cambodia would form a joint “think tank” with China to investigate the root causes of “colour revolutions”, he appeared to betray not only the Kingdom’s accelerating shift away from Western democratic norms, but also an apparent misunderstanding of the movements themselves.
The term “colour revolution” – which refers to popular protest movements that have toppled regimes in the former Soviet Bloc and Middle East – has become a common refrain among government officials and members of the security services, who have invoked its spectre to justify a more aggressive stance against dissent in the Kingdom.
The escalating rhetoric culminated this month with the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of “treason”, allegedly for conspiring with the United States to foment a colour revolution.
However, a close study of colour revolutions elsewhere reveals a truth that Cambodian officials appear not to grasp: in taking such a hard line against the phenomenon itself, the Cambodian government is often drawing unflattering comparisons between itself and some of the most autocratic regimes of the modern era.
More specifically, in countries where such movements occurred, a central driver was popular discontent with autocratic leaders and a major impetus was allegations of electoral fraud.
Kao Kim Hourn, a minister attached to Prime Minister Hun Sen, made the think tank announcement during a press conference upon the premier’s return from the 14th Asean-China Expo.
“The royal government has assigned a research working group to cooperate with each other to investigate and exchange information,” Kim Hourn told reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport.
“We agreed together to investigate, to understand more about the root causes of colour revolutions,” Hourn continued, adding that the think tank will submit “recommendations, especially on political policy”, to the government.
Headlining the organisation is the director of the Royal Cambodian Academy, Sok Touch, who recently spoke out against colour revolutions, characterising most major anti-government demonstrations – particularly those following the disputed 2013 elections – as part of a concerted, years-long effort at revolution.
A central figure in those protests, current Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha, is now languishing in a Tbong Khmum prison on charges of “treason” after a years-old video resurfaced in which he discussed receiving advice from the US on his political career.
The video, authorities insist – with little apparent regard for his presumption of innocence – is evidence that the opposition leader was part of a United States-backed plot to topple the government through colour revolution.
In the footage, Sokha describes receiving assistance from people in the US to pursue a “bottom-up” strategy of changing a “dictator”, and mentions the events in Serbia that led to the downfall of former President Slobodan Milosevic at the hands of a popular uprising, though Sokha goes on to seemingly distance himself from such tactics.
However, in decrying the movement that led to Milosevic’s ouster, the government has failed to acknowledge its roots, or the lessons it and other popular movements might hold for Cambodia.
In Serbia, widespread suspicions about the 2000 presidential election result led to 10 days of protest, a general strike and the convergence of hundreds of thousands of protesters in the capital, Belgrade.
In what became known as the “Bulldozer Revolution”, Milosevic was forced to step down. He was later charged with war crimes in connection to the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, though died during the proceedings.
Electoral irregularities also sparked protests in Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution”, Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” and Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip revolution” in 2005.
“If you reveal electoral fraud, that works as a catalyst in most countries,” said Abel Polese, a scholar from Dublin City University who has studied colour revolutions in depth. “There was a lot of tension and people were just waiting for a fuse to say ‘this is all going wrong and this is the ultimate evidence’.”
Such popular discontent – and deep suspicions of electoral irregularities – was evident in the mass protests following the 2013 elections, prompting soul-searching and promises of reform by the CPP, which won by a narrow margin.
However, in the past two years, the government’s attention has turned from reform to locking up opposition members, critics and members of civil society, culminating in Sokha’s arrest on September 3.
A 2010 study edited by Polese and fellow academic Donnacha Ó Beachain – The Colour Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics – looks at 12 examples of nonviolent movements against incumbent regimes.
It found a similar pattern of civil society and political actors working to discredit the authorities while pushing people to vote at an election. “The assumption is that, where the regime is sufficiently unpopular, a high turnout will allow a resourceful opposition to win the elections. The second part of this strategy relies on the assumption that the authorities might not play fair with the election results.
“Once the regime refuses to acknowledge the election results (by falsifying them or simply refusing to step down), people are called on to the streets and a general strike is called until the status quo changes (this may mean that the authorities step down or that they crush the protests).”
Discussing popular revolt against the Armenian government in 2004 in the book, Armenian academic Mikayel Zolyan notes that countries with “imitated democracy” – where formal democratic and legal institutions were a “façade” behind which elites made decisions and chose leaders – were more likely to experience “colour revolutions”. “Even though ‘stability’ is a central concept in the political discourse of pro-government politicians both in Armenia and other post- Soviet states, the political system described above is inherently and fundamentally unstable,” he writes.
However, in the wake of successful regime changes in the early 2000s, the study notes that authoritarian regimes became adept at countering colour revolution strategies through harsher repression of NGOs, protesters and opposition leaders.
“‘If in doubt, shoot’ is now clearly the motto of autocrats who wish to keep power,” the authors write.
In the past two years, only one senior official, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, has publicly addressed the role of a government in a colour revolutions, saying such movements were the result of injustice, and noting it was authorities’ responsibility to keep the people happy.
“A movement, or colour revolution or people’s revolution, can happen because of our own inactive management,” Kheng said, adding: “We should not crack down on other people when we do things wrong; we are not being responsible – this is called injustice.”
Rather than an effort to explore this dynamic, said regional analyst Carl Thayer, the proposed think tank with China is merely a “smokescreen” whose main objective isn’t to understand colour revolutions, but “to keep the one party in power”.
Thayer asserted that Hun Sen’s obsession with colour revolutions stems from “anxiety” over not knowing “real popular opinion” due to suppression of freedom of expression.
Hun Sen’s agreement, Thayer said, was likely “another way of ingratiating himself with China” and a “conduit for China to continue to undermine the US”.
Polese, the academic, said in an interview yesterday that the government’s creation of a “scapegoat” in the form of Sokha’s purported shadowy US-backed conspiracy was a strategy to threaten its opponents, rather than understand the threat they faced.
“It’s a way of acknowledging they are too weak to deal with the figure one to one, or in a more democratic setting. So instead of saying politically ‘we are stronger than you’, you say ‘we don’t care about politics because your morals are so low’; or ‘you are a foreign agent’; or ‘you are a fanatical person’; or ‘you don’t pay taxes’.”