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Democracy debate needs perspective

Democracy debate needs perspective

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"

in Cambodia.

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.


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