The Cambodian government, which had acquitted itself fairly well in 2005, has come
under severe criticism in the new year for the arrests on defamation charges of several
activists. The government has been condemned for undermining free expression, for
returning to enhanced authoritarianism, for the blatant misuse of the courts to stifle
criticism and for going down the Myanmar way.
The arrests, widely criticized as unwarranted, presented an unexpected silver-platter
opportunity for opposition groups to fan unhappiness against the government and against
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who again hit the headlines last week for calling "some"
of his critics "animals" for their misplaced defense of wrongdoers instead
of the victims.
The irony is that there is certainly much more free expression in Cambodia than in
many other countries. In fact, it has become part of the evolving Cambodian political
culture to roundly, and often unfairly, criticize both the government and the opposition
in the partisan media.
The question that arises is why the government, which had hitherto tolerated criticism,
should now, as several critics point out, over-react.
There are probably several reasons, but two are critical contributory factors-reaction
to the signing last October of a Supplementary Border Agreement with Vietnam and
the perceived direct involvement of foreign-influenced NGOs in Cambodia's domestic
The earlier border agreements, concluded between the two countries during the decade
when Vietnam was in occupation of Cambodia, remain highly controversial and emotive
as a significant number of Cambodians believe that they necessarily and naturally
weighed overly in favor of the occupying force.
Worse, some detractors see the latest signing as a highly creative backdoor attempt
by the two governments to legitimize the earlier unacceptable "occupation"
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party was aware of the major risk it was taking with
the signing of the agreement as anti-Vietnamese feelings are easily aroused in Phnom
Moreover, the government recognized that opposition groups had the capacity to rally
crowds to the streets. Hun Sen obviously opted for a decisive, tough stance to ensure
that there wasn't a groundswell against either him or the government-especially on
the basis of the highly inflammatory allegation that the CPP had sold Cambodian territory
to the Vietnamese.
Hun Sen forewarned, in his inimitable no-nonsense style, that he would immediately
sue for defamation if anyone so much as dared make such an allegation.
This brings us to the second reason for the over-reaction. In the last few years,
the government had been monitoring with increasing concern the activities of certain
civil society groups, in particular the US-based International Republican Institute
(IRI) and the strident calls of some of its supporters for "regime change"
Sources in Phnom Penh have confided that the IRI, which initially focused on strengthening
democratic institutions, had increasingly taken on the role of establishing organizations
or enhancing existing structures which were critical of the government. Such direct
involvement, including generous funding and technical advice, with groups critical
of the government was understandably not looked upon with official favour.
An example is "The Voice of Radio 93.5FM," which began in 2003 as a provincial
station with just cannibalized parts of karaoke equipment. It has now expanded beyond
its owner's wildest dreams, thanks to more than US$100,000 in USAID and IRI grants.
According to IRI resident program director Alex Sutton, the station "now has
the infrastructure to become a leader in the country's independent media."
More importantly, it has begun to carry the "Voice of Democracy," the human
rights program produced by another IRI-sponsored organization, The Cambodian Centre
for Human Rights. The touchy point is that the center had been denied its own frequency
to air this program by the Ministry of Information.
The IRI outwitted the government here.
Given the potent combination of the perceived external support and domestic unhappiness
over the signing of the treaty and the earlier calls for regime change, the security
agencies quickly recognized the capacity for detractors to rabble-rouse significant
numbers in the country.
The government quickly went for pre-emptive strikes and detained the four influential
activists. It succeeded in the short term with its toughness, all the while conscious
that its actions would bring universal condemnation for a while. It was willing to
take that risk.
More importantly, in the process, the focus was shifted from the domestically controversial
border treaty to a less potent human rights issue.
Meanwhile, the government defended its difficult position on the basis that it had
followed due process and that it would have been an abrogation of its duty if it
failed to prosecute those guilty of such serious defamation.
Officials also took pains to point out that defamation as a criminal offence was
not of the present government's making but a legacy of the United Nations Transitional
Authority, which prepared Cambodia for the 1993 elections. However, critics were
not persuaded and have countered that "it was a law for exceptional circumstances
that should have been replaced by now."
In a turn of events, Hun Sen declared on Jan 24 that he had reached a compromise
with the activists and that he would drop criminal defamation suits against the four
critics as they had written him letters apologizing for their defamatory remarks.
He saw two alternatives for the activists: either to go to court and, should they
be found guilty, the prime minister would seek a royal pardon; or for the activists
to keep a low profile for three years by which time defamation charges in Cambodia
While neither would be palatable to the activists, it nevertheless left the door
open for Sam Rainsy to follow a similar course of retracting his allegations and
returning from self-exile as some unconfirmed reports have indicated.
Given the nature of Cambodian politics, there will surely be other rounds of tension
and excitement in the future. Meanwhile, those who predicted the demise of democracy
and of Cambodia going the Myanmar way, while this is arguably not impossible, may
have themselves over-reacted this time.
* The writer, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies,
was a former Singaporean Ambassador to Cambodia.