From disgraced tycoons to a blistering drought to high-profile deportations to a political roller coaster that veered from attempted detente to the public beating of lawmakers, 2015 offered no shortage of indelible moments. The Post staff chose a few of the most notable to remember.
If this is dialogue ...
The year began with proclamations of a new age of political cooperation under the so-called culture of dialogue – it was a detente that wouldn’t last long. In April, after months of negotiation, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party approved an election reform package, creating a bipartisan National Election Committee. A plank of the July 2014 political deal that ended the CNRP’s almost year-long parliamentary boycott, the reforms represented the high-water mark of the “culture of dialogue”, an agreement stipulating that parties, and their leaders, would play nice. And they did, briefly. Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP president Sam Rainsy rang in Khmer New Year together in Siem Reap, then followed that up with a jovial family dinner in July at the Hotel Cambodiana. Then relations soured, as a CNRP campaign to show the government’s complicity in alleged territorial encroachment by Vietnam raised the ire of the premier. Eleven CNRP activists were convicted on “insurrection” charges over a violent anti-government protest last year. Three more were later arrested over the case. Opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour was jailed for a border-related Facebook post Hun Sen deemed treasonous. In October, pro-government protesters arrived outside parliament to demand CNRP deputy Kem Sokha be sacked as the parliament’s vice president, an ousting that occurred days later. As the protest dissolved, several demonstrators remained behind and severely bashed two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly (three soldiers have since been charged), while others surrounded Sokha’s house, pelting it with stones. Hun Sen denied orchestrating the violence, but the reckoning wasn’t over. Sam Rainsy was hit with an arrest warrant for a seven-year-old incitement and defamation case brought by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. Rainsy, soon to face two more lawsuits, entered his third stint of self-imposed exile in a decade – an all-too-familiar ending to a tumultuous year.
A dry season
An El Niño strong enough to be dubbed “Godzilla” and a changing climate exacerbated one of the worst droughts to strike the Kingdom in recent memory, causing worries for farmers and fisherman alike who are struggling with water scarcity in 13 provinces. With meteorologists expecting the drought to continue into next year, it is difficult to imagine a reprieve for rural Cambodians who are the most vulnerable to weather disasters. Climate change is also being blamed for the increasing severity of flooding like that in Kampot province, where authorities decided to release water from the Kamchay dam, destroying homes immediately downstream and flooding the provincial capital. While for the first time since 1997, haze from Indonesian peat fires affected air quality in southern parts of the country, including Phnom Penh in October, this year may nevertheless prove to be a turning point in quelling the threat of climate change. As the year came to a close, King Norodom Sihamoni travelled to Paris and delivered a speech appealing for decisive action while highlighting the country’s high vulnerability to climate change, while the Prey Lang Community Network was awarded the Equator Prize. To what extent Cambodia’s voice was heard is unclear, but the UN climate talks (COP21) yielded an agreement that left the Kingdom’s delegates at least somewhat satisfied.
To Russia with love
Worthy of a Bond villain, the dramatic decline and fall of fugitive oligarch Sergei Polonsky made for an action-packed first half of 2015. On the run from embezzlement charges in his native Russia since 2013, the one-time billionaire built a private island empire off the Cambodian coast. Although he dodged more than a few extradition requests, things began heading south for the eccentric developer in February, the planned date of the hedonistic Russian music festival of Kazantip. The festival, which Polonsky planned on attending, was cancelled even before it began as police accused it of promoting lewd behaviour, and a vicious brawl erupted between rival groups tied to the event. Meanwhile, Polonsky’s feud with his former business partner, longtime Sihanoukville businessman Nikolai Doroshenko, spiralled into all-out war as Nikolai’s family accused Polonsky of various assassination plots, even alleging Polonsky blew up their family Land Rover. Cambodian authorities vowed to crack down on foreign “mafia” on the coast following all the negative publicity. Soon, high-level officials from Russia and Cambodia were publicly mulling an extradition treaty. It all ended on May 15, when police arrested Polonsky in his shorts and flip-flops and deported him to Russia two days later. Now, Polonsky’s island empire is slowly crumbling into the surf, as a powerless Polonsky languishes in a Moscow prison awaiting trial.
LANGO made law
Tensions between the government and Cambodia’s deep-rooted NGO community came to a head in July as the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations, or LANGO, was passed. The law, which requires all domestic and international NGOs to register with authorities, allows the government to block NGOs if they are not “politically neutral” and if their activities threaten “public order”, some of the many vague clauses that critics say the government could use to de-register any organisation it didn’t like. The government, led by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, dismissed mounting criticisms from Western nations and international organisations and passed the law – 20 years in the making – on July 13 amidst an opposition boycott. The government claimed the law would standardise Cambodia’s sprawling, ill-regulated NGO sector, and provide a bulwark against “terrorist” financing – but others said it was a clear move to consolidate power following the disputed election of 2013. Despite the cries of the NGO community, LANGO has so far failed to make a significant impact. But critics say the law’s real purpose is aimed at the next election years of 2017 and 2018, when it can be used as a tool to suppress politically sensitive dissent.
The year also saw the strange case of a fugitive tycoon and his indignant parents bring down the president of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and his enforcer underling amid accusations of corruption levelled by Prime Minister Hun Sen himself. Oknha Thong Sarath fled Cambodia to Vietnam in late 2014 after being accused of the murder of rival tycoon Ung Meng Cheu. In a heated press conference following the accusations, his parents chided authorities for disrespecting their son, only to be arrested themselves days later on illegal weapons charges. Their tale, however, took a more bizarre turn when Sarath’s mother and father – Keo Sary and Thong Chamroeun – were released on bail in February, only to be re-apprehended days later en route to Vietnam in an alleged attempt to flee the country. In short order, Hun Sen, in an animated public address, alleged that “some judges conspire[d] with thieves” to facilitate the release. The next day, Ang Maltey, president of the municipal court, was transferred out of his position, a move that prompted a raucous party among court staffers, who accused Maltey of engaging in corrupt practices. The day after that, Pich Prumhmony, a military official accused by court staffers of acting as Maltey’s enforcer, was arrested and later charged with interfering in court functions. Months later, Maltey himself was charged for receiving a car from a disgraced police officer and giving it to his son. Meanwhile, Sarath and his parents were convicted on weapons charges and Prumhmony was convicted of meddling in a court investigation. Far from finished, however, the court went on to issue Sarath’s mother and Prumhmony new charges for offering and accepting bribes, respectively. Sarath, for his part, is still awaiting trial for the alleged murder of Meng Cheu.
Few stories from 2015 drew more international attention to Cambodia than the arrival of refugees from Nauru. Nine months after an agreement between Australia and Cambodia was signed over champagne, paving the way for refugees to be transferred to Phnom Penh from so-called offshore processing centres on the Pacific island, the first group arrived in June amid a stony silence from Canberra. The refugees had been promised a rosy life in the Kingdom in a deal sweetened with cash incentives, but at least one of the four arrivals, a Muslim from Myanmar, decided to return not long after touching down. The apparent rejection of the “Cambodia option” by refugees on Nauru led advocates to say the deal had failed. Australia reached out to other countries, such as the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan, to find alternative resettlement countries. In November, one more refugee was flown to Cambodia in secret. Little has been heard from any of the arrivals since the deal was signed, with the authorities reticent to discuss the issue. While few arrived from Nauru, hundreds of Montagnard asylum seekers crossed the Vietnamese border this year, many into Ratanakkiri province, claiming religious persecution. Dozens lived in hiding in remote jungles for months with little food or water, while gradually more and more made it to the capital. Several were deported back into the arms of Hanoi, and despite assisting some of the Montagnards, the UN later agreed to facilitate their mass deportation.
Death in a forest
It was a story that shook the conservation world. On the night of November 7, two men on an anti-logging patrol – Sap Yuos and Seang Narong – were assassinated while they slept in their hammocks in Preah Vihear’s Preah Roka forest. Details remain murky as to the exact motives and identities of the killers, but numerous reports linked local military officers involved in the illegal timber trade to the murders. The slayings marked the bloodiest point in yet another year littered with reports of illegal logging and also defined by what rights groups described as a crackdown on environmental defenders. Activists from local NGO Mother Nature began a campaign against illegal sand dredging in Koh Kong province that included direct action against the companies involved. For their troubles, three of them were arrested after failing to appear in court. The activists remain in jail as we close out the year, and were joined by Areng Valley representative Ven Vorn two months later. Vorn was accused of unspecified “forest crimes”. In February, Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged not to proceed with the controversial Stung Cheay Areng hydropower project for the foreseeable future following months of opposition from the local community and Mother Nature. But shortly after the announcement, prominent Areng Valley campaigner Alex Gonzalez Davidson was deported, allegedly on the orders of Hun Sen.
“When [Hun Sen] speaks, the police work.” Shooting victim Nuth Sakhorn couldn’t have known how prescient her words would be when she uttered them in August. More than three years after she and two other female garment workers were shot by former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith during an unruly protest in a special economic zone, the disgraced ex-official finally turned himself in to authorities on August 3 – and all it took was a nod from the prime minister. The arrest came just four days after Hun Sen called for it, his first time ever publicly broaching the issue. To that point, the one-time border town kingpin had spent precisely zero days in jail since the 2012 shooting, in which numerous eyewitnesses said he waded into a crowd of protesters, drew his pistol and began firing indiscriminately. In the interim, Bandith was rumoured to have been living abroad by some, while others insisted he was living comfortably in Cambodia under a patron’s protection. In the end, the jail sentence he was avoiding was just 18 months on the charge of “unintentional violence”, a sentence widely decried by unions, rights groups and victims as insufficient for the shootings. Since entering Prey Sar prison, rights groups have claimed he is receiving preferential treatment.
End of an era
The omnipresent billboards of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s triumvirate have slowly been disappearing since June, replaced with the visages of only two men: Hun Sen and Heng Samrin. The third longtime component of the iconic image, Senate president and longtime party powerbroker Chea Sim, died on June 8. Long plagued by a host of health issues, the 82-year-old’s passing surprised few, but it marked the end of an era in Cambodian politics. Once widely regarded as the second-most powerful man in the Kingdom, Sim had watched as his power base – a powerful patronage network carefully cultivated over the course of decades – was chipped away piece by piece. That process was accelerated, analysts said, in 2004, when he was escorted from the country for “medical reasons” after refusing to sign off on constitutional changes necessary for the CPP and Funcinpec to form a coalition government. His health increasingly frail, Sim became a largely symbolic figure by his death. In the end, all the pomp and trappings of a large state funeral were mustered to bid the one-time giant farewell. City Hall claimed a crowd of 40,000 witnessed as his funeral carriage passed through the streets, but at Wat Botum park, honour guards and officials seemed to outnumber a crowd in the low hundreds.
Sok Bun has yet to be tried, but a verdict was arguably delivered months ago in what one could call Cambodia’s first trial by social media. The stark, black-and-white CCTV footage of the millionaire real estate developer savagely beating TV personality Ek Socheata, better known as “Ms Sasa”, shocked, then outraged average Cambodians as it quickly went viral. The stomach-turning video showed an extended beating in which a drunken Bun, who held the royally granted title of oknha, dragged Socheata to the floor and repeatedly punched and kicked her in the head as a bodyguard stood by with weapon drawn. Fleeing the country as outrage built, the tycoon stepped down from his prominent development project, exited his post as head of the nation’s real estate association and announced plans to relinquish his oknha title. All the while, Socheata and her family rejected attempts to settle out of court for as much as $100,000. Pleas for “mercy” delivered by his lawyer failed to stop the inevitable. On July 18, following yet another public call for arrest by the premier – one of several this year – Bun turned himself in. Jailed for more than five months now, the disgraced tycoon is still awaiting a trial date.
Despite years of staunch government opposition, threats of war and the conspicuous non-participation of the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s national co-investigating judge, 2015 finally saw charges laid in controversial Cases 003 and 004. On March 3, international co-investigating judge Mark Harmon charged ex-Khmer Rouge navy chief Meas Muth and former cadre Im Chaem, who is accused of leading purges, with crimes against humanity, among other offences. In mid-December, new co-investigating judge Michael Bohlander, who replaced Harmon, travelled to Battambang province to deliver Muth a revised set of charges that also included genocide. Later in March, Harmon also issued charges of crimes against humanity and homicide against Ao An, aka Ta An, a former official accused of crimes related to security centres and execution sites. Finally, on December 9, Bohlander charged Yim Tith, aka Ta Tith, a mid-level Khmer Rouge commander accused of crimes committed in the Southwest Zone, with genocide of the Khmer Krom, homicide and crimes against humanity. Cases 003 and 004, to which the four suspects belong, were long thought hopeless given the government’s long-held contention that pushing beyond the current Case 002 would have deleterious effects – including, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen, plunging the country back into civil war. However, despite the progress in the cases, many steps remain before the charges result in potential trials. What’s more, the decision to charge the suspects was unilaterally taken by the international co-investigating judges and arrest warrants for suspects were ignored by authorities, reviving scepticism among observers that the cases will proceed.