I had hoped that somehow Cambodians of opposing political camps – the growing vocal and fearless population demanding change and the military and police defending Prime Minister Hun Sen – would see it in their nation’s interest to avoid bloodshed.
Khmers say two hands must clap to produce sounds. But Khmer “wingnuts” seem to have fossilized charet Khmer – Khmer personality traits – to a point that change seems all but impossible. The premier’s antagonists reject any “deal” with the “traitor” and to Hun Sen’s delight also speak forcefully against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, whom they also call a “traitor” and a “coward.”
On July 10, prominent Khmer political analyst, Dr. Kem Ley, 46, a critic of the government and the opposition, was shot dead inside a gas station by a former Khmer Rouge soldier and poor Cambodian farm worker who claimed Ley owed him $3,000. Author of the book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” Sebastian Strangio, wrote, “Few doubt the killing was politically motivated.”
Strangio sees Hun’s dual-track strategy: to woo voters through popular reforms such as wage hikes for teachers and soldiers, promises of land for poor farmers; and to act ruthlessly to quash challenges to his rule. Strangio recalled Ley’s warning in a phone conversation before Ley was murdered: If a politically awakened population can’t get solutions from its leaders, it might be tempted to seek solutions in the street. He quoted Ley, “If the party can’t change to respond to the needs of the people, the people will change things for themselves.”
Ironically, two months earlier, a senior Khmer political activist insisted to me that since the articles in Cambodia’s constitution that stipulate civil and human rights for Cambodian citizens are ignored and the signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords similarly did not enforce its promises to the Khmer people, the people have to get up and demand their rights.
Departing German Ambassador to Cambodia Joachim Baron von Marschall told The Cambodia Daily, “What I see is a firm determination of the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) to stay in power.” The ambassador suggested one draws one’s own conclusion as to whether there will be a free election in Cambodia.
In its July 7 report, “Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family,” Washington-based Global Witness, a nonprofit organization that tracks corruption, human rights violations, and acts that degrade the environment, alleged that Hun has abused his power to allow his family members to pull the strings on the national economy and amass vast personal fortunes with extreme consequences for the population. The report claimed that Hun’s family – including his wife, five children, nieces and nephews – have links to 114 domestic companies, with links to international brands including Apple, Visa, LG Electronics, with a total value of more than $200 million.
The report charges that Hun’s family members, who hold key posts in politics, the military, police, media, and charities, have been key to his 30-year dictatorial reign of murder, torture and imprisonment of political opponents; and that although Cambodia reports a high rate of economic growth, 40 percent of Cambodians live at or below the poverty line.
Today Cambodians demand equal treatment under the law, restoration of their constitutional rights, and an open economy that offers opportunity to all Cambodian citizens.
Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam where he taught political science for 13 years. He now lives in the U.S. mainland and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.