Since the end of May, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), a government agency closely aligned with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and by the admission of the ruling prime minister, one that does not conform to the Paris Principles on what constitute an independent National Human Rights Institution, has produced a series of propaganda-like videos released on YouTube and Facebook.
To date, seven videos have been released by the CHRC, with their focus on two main topics: “excessive” use of civil rights and people’s “right to live’”
The first two videos released on May 24 trumpeted these themes well. The first, on press preedom, asks the question: “With 20 TV channels, 800 news and magazines agencies, countless online broadcasters, how can Cambodia be considered to be under a dictatorship?”
This question is followed by a second video comparing Cambodian lives under the Khmer Rouge regime and “after 7 January 1979” (a reference to the date when Vietnamese forces entered Phnom Penh, effectively ending the Khmer Rouge regime), where people enjoy “all sorts of rights, including the right to live”.
Five days later, a third video was released comparing Cambodia to war-torn countries like Syria and Libya. This video, made infamous by the CHRC’s use of images from Singapore, Qatar and Vietnam to depict prosperous “before” pictures of these three countries, followed by a montage of images of conflict.
The captions of these images put the cause of the Syrian and Libyan conflicts squarely on the people and their “excessive use of rights”. The video went on to warn Cambodians that using their rights “excessively” will “bring about destruction, leading to broken families and loss of thousands of lives”.
The subsequent videos largely echo these arguments. At one point, the Prime Minister Hun Sen is shown giving a speech in which he states that extremist activists like to talk about human rights, but without 7 January 1979, no one would be alive to enjoy these human rights.
The prime minister seems to be suggesting that the Cambodian people would have completely disappeared had he not “led” the Vietnamese force that invaded Cambodia in December 1978, culminating in the “liberation” of Cambodia on January 7, 1979.
The most recent video, released yesterday morning took the civil rights argument in a new direction. The video made selective references to specific articles in the Cambodian Constitution, as well as showing highly selective images of “riots” and violent protests in Cambodia, pointing out that the authorities have the power under the constitution to uphold rule of law in the country.
The video claims similar exercises of power in the face of protests have been seen in other developed countries, including France, Italy, Great Britain and the US. In what could be described as a rather tactless use of images, one photo showed four white American police officers subduing a single coloured person, holding him to the ground violently with no other “protesters” in sight.
Given the recent controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, the use of this image is not only out of context but also demonstrates a complete lack of sensitivity towards this issue by the Cambodian authorities.
The videos released so far would suggest a well-thought-through and well-designed campaign. The production value of the videos is relatively high with a common, easily identifiable theme, in both appearance and content; especially when compared to the propaganda material we’ve seen from the Cambodian government in the past.
The government has chosen to distribute the videos via Facebook and YouTube; two of the most widely accessed social media platforms in Cambodia. The addition of English subtitles is clearly designed to assist in the dissemination of these videos to a wider, international audience, as well as helping to bring some level of legitimacy to the message with the Cambodian audience.
Politically savvy international observers may view this attempt as simply more heavily biased government propaganda. The videos use highly selective imagery and legal concepts to help sell a message that is common to all autocratic dictators around the world, namely that without the current prime minister there will be no contemporary Cambodia in which its people could enjoy any rights at all.
Without the current prime minister, Cambodia will be like Syria, Libya, and Yemen (ironically, countries that either had autocratic dictatorship regimes or still do); and the most important underlying message of all, that if people “exceed” their allowable limit of rights, society will somehow go into “self-destruct” mode and Cambodia will end up like Syria or Libya.
Within this “discourse”, the government have done nothing to address the other fundamental civil rights that are enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution, namely the right to freedom of expression (Article 41), freedom of peaceful assembly (Article 42) and all other inherent rights in the international instruments ratified by Cambodia (Article 31).
The government does not address the fact that a repressive and violent regime is almost always the reason a country descends into civil chaos and that it is the ruling regime who is usually the one in possession of the tools (weapons) that is necessary to make a peaceful demonstration bloody.
In Cambodia, there is irrefutable evidence that government-aligned actors are normally the one responsible for violent acts committed during peaceful protests, targeting human rights activists and journalists reporting on the protests.
It is easy to see why the government wants to produce and disseminate this type of propaganda. The reach and power of social media is now being grasped and understood by both sides of Cambodian politics: The ruling CPP has seen how the opposition has used social media to their great benefit, and is now playing “catch-up”.
It is easy to also see on the surface how these videos could be incredibly persuasive to the majority of ordinary Cambodian voters, who simply accept the government rhetoric without asking too many questions.
Other governments have been able to use this strategy to great effect, including Australia on the refugee and asylum seeker issue, the US with the ascendency of Donald Trump, and the recent successful Brexit campaign. The government here must be asking itself: “Why not in Cambodia?”
Billy Chia-Lung Tai is an independent human rights and legal consultant.