A good communist must be their own harshest critic if they want to keep the masses onside, wrote Chairman Mao in an April 1945 essay that ordered his officials to search themselves for dirt.
“Conscientious practice of self-criticism is still another hallmark distinguishing our party from all other political parties,” Mao wrote. “As we say, dust will accumulate if a room is not cleaned regularly; our faces will get dirty if they are not washed regularly.”
If Prime Minister Hun Sen has struggled to shed his communist roots, he betrayed them after the CPP’s near loss at the 2013 national election when he took Mao’s advice, slammed his own party and ordered his officials to “scrub your body while bathing if it is plagued by dirty things”.
“Deep reforms will be focused on legal and judicial reforms, anti-corruption, good governance and land and forest management,” the premier said in a six-hour televised speech in September 2013. “There will be no tolerance for any misbehaving ministers in this term.”
But that was then, and this is now. And with the June 4 commune elections now five months away, an odd collection of new detritus has been accumulating in the Cambodian state.
Most notably, Chhean Pisith, an immigration police officer in Banteay Meanchey province’s Poipet town, who suddenly fell to the ground after walking up to a stationary SUV manned by local opposition official Mang Puthy during a protest on December 22.
Officials settled on a charge of “intentional violence” for Puthy, even though a video of the event appears to show his car motionless. The event is still being parodied mirthlessly on social media two weeks later.
It was then revealed on December 27 that two of the three Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit members convicted of beating opposition lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea in 2014 had been promoted to colonel just days after being released from a year in prison.
To complete a trifecta, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court the next day said it was closing its investigation into the July 10 murder of outspoken government critic Kem Ley, whose killing opposition leader Sam Rainsy has accused Hun Sen of ordering. It offered no new information.
Each sparked outrage. Yet far from attempting damage control – or making an example by scrubbing the dirt away – officials have instead over the past week dug their heels into the mud.
Poipet’s purported flopper? The driver had used inappropriate gestures and words at the officer, the Interior Ministry said in a statement on December 29, which studiously avoided mentioning the ministry’s views on the video showing the driver’s car sitting motionless during the alleged assault.
Kem Ley’s murder? Please, officials at the court said, do not ask why the killer mounted a police motorbike while making his getaway, or why police refused to release CCTV footage of the killing – or why there has been no trial for the confessed killer.
“These questions can affect the secrecy of the investigation process,” court spokesman Ly Sophanna said December 28, refusing to say even if the man arrested for the murder would be tried.
As for the bodyguards who beat the opposition lawmakers half to death at an anti-opposition protest ordered by Hun Sen? “They must receive what they deserve for their good performance,” Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said on December 27.
With the rise of social media to the most dominant news medium in the country, it was a blasé response from a regime facing an opposition with a higher profile than any it has faced before.
“People are now are very well-informed about exactly what is happening, like the bodyguards who were in jail for a while, and then were promoted to colonel, and Kem Ley’s case, and the guy in Poipet,” said Moeun Tola, head of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, or Central. “It’s all clear for the people to see the double standard in law enforcement. It’s not helpful for the ruling party, and it could have a negative impact,” Tola said, explaining that he was seeing more widespread, open criticism of the government than in past mandates.
“People see how bad the current leadership is, and how bad the government is affecting the lives of the people. When they see someone doing something wrong – even if they don’t speak out too much – they can make their decision at the election.”
Yet the CPP has in past commune elections fared impressively well, and the question of whether public outrage will translate into electoral damage on June 4 is one the party rejects.
“I don’t think so,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. He said he believed voters would not judge their commune leaders for what the courts do.
“We have to respect the rule of law and the discretion of the judges. We cannot challenge the judges. For the immigration police in Poipet, we have to respect the professionalism of the courts. They are the professionals,” he said. “We don’t just go with the people’s feelings.”
But it would be hard for even the most sympathetic CPP voter not to have strange feelings about “intentional violence” charges for a man sitting in a stationary car as a policeman collapses next to it – especially given the circulation a day later of images of the officer partying with Hun Sen’s eldest son.
“The Poipet incident is very much riling people’s sense of outrage,” said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.
“The nice thing . . . is that there’s video and images of it, so either you’re going to believe that ‘black is white and white is black’ or you’re going to believe that ‘white is white and black is black’.”
Siphan said that even if some believed the government did something wrong in the recent events, he did not believe it would impact their decision when it comes to voting in their local communes.
“People vote according to their area,” he said. “What happened there did not affect Kratie, or another province. Only polarised politicians can connect this all together. People vote on local issues.”
Yet the opposition is less convinced that national issues will not translate into local votes.
The party is keenly aware of how many Cambodians have now been abroad – whether through opportunities provided by growing wealth, or through the necessity of leaving to find work to escape crippling poverty – and returned with jealous tales of more rational government.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said in an email that the apparent inability of the government to scrub itself and reform was a boon to the CNRP in providing a clear choice to voters.
“The regime has turned our values of freedom, truth and justice upside down,” Rainsy said. “It’s not the rule of law we want to see and are fighting for [that the CPP currently provides], but the Kafkaesque rule of the gun combined with that of money.”
“Hun Sen and his cronies have printed their real and ugly faces on the recent events you mentioned. Nobody can be duped anymore.”