Strengthening Cambodia’s Foreign Policy via institutional reforms


January 19, 2019

Strengthening Cambodia’s Foreign Policy via institutional reforms

By Dr. Chheang Vannarith, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Amid shifting global power dynamics and intense pressure from the West, Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy in the coming years will aim to diversify its external relations, with a focus on South and East Asian countries. But in practice Cambodia still struggles to implement an effective foreign policy, stymied by institutional weaknesses.

 By Dr. Chheang Vannarith, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace

http://www.eastasiaforum.org.

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Amid shifting global power dynamics and intense pressure from the West, Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy in the coming years will aim to diversify its external relations, with a focus on South and East Asian countries. But in practice Cambodia still struggles to implement an effective foreign policy, stymied by institutional weaknesses. Without much-needed reform, Cambodia’s weak international presence may persist.

 

The rumour that China is eyeing a naval base in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province is stirring public debate both inside and outside the country. US Vice President Mike Pence has raised concerns directly with Prime Minister Hun Sen on the issue.

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The Cambodian government has repeatedly stressed that it does not intend to align with any major power, nor will it ever allow any foreign military base on its soil, because it adheres to a foreign policy stance of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. Despite these assurances, international media and observers still tend to portray Cambodia as a client state of China.

Such perceptions, which do not reflect the entirety of Cambodia’s foreign policy dynamics, damage the country’s international image and role. The tough measures taken by the European Union and the United States on Cambodia’s perceived ‘democratic backsliding’ partly reflect their own strategic interest in ensuring that Cambodia does not align itself too closely with China.

Facing unprecedented pressure from the West, Cambodia’s foreign policy options are constrained. There is a shared belief among Cambodia’s ruling elites that the European Union and the United States have double standards and treat Cambodia unfairly. They question why the European Union and the United States target Cambodia while Vietnam and Thailand still enjoy good relations with the West. And they question why Cambodia is attacked for forging close ties with China when other Southeast Asian countries are doing the same.

Such external circumstances force Cambodia to invest heavily in foreign policy. During the 41st Party Congress of the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party in December 2018, foreign policy was highlighted as an area requiring more attention.

Cambodia’s foreign policy outlook is shaped by the unfolding power shifts in the Asia -Pacific region and the implications of major power rivalry. As the world becomes a multi-polar one, Cambodia is adjusting its foreign policy objectives and strategies accordingly. In this new world order, Cambodia’s ruling elites believe that the country’s foreign policy direction cannot be detached from that of the Asian powers.

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Phnom Penh has signed only two strategic partnerships so far: one with China in 2010 and another with Japan in 2013. Cambodia views China and Japan as among its most important strategic partners, and ones that can be relied on to help Cambodia realise its vision of becoming a higher middle-income country by 2030 and high-income country by 2050.

 

Cambodia also gives strategic importance to ASEAN as crucial to furthering regional integration and helping Southeast Asian countries cushion against foreign intervention.

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Diversifying strategic and economic partners has occupied Cambodian foreign policymakers for years. A lack of coordination among the relevant ministries — such as the Ministry of Foreign and International Cooperation (MOFAIC), Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Ministry of National Defence and Council for the Development of Cambodia — remains a significant issue preventing Cambodia from achieving its diversification strategy. These ministries need to work together to implement a more robust foreign policy.

There is strong political will on the part of MOFAIC to develop and implement a more robust foreign economic policy but other government agencies do not seem prepared to come onboard. MOFAIC has taken a leadership role in negotiating the ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) initiative with the European Union, for instance, but this should ideally be done by the Ministry of Commerce.

Cambodia’s ruling elites are aware of the risks emanating from over-reliance on a single or few countries for their survival. Hedging and diversification are recognised as important strategies, but implementation remains an issue. It will take a few more years for Cambodia to develop a concrete action plan, build institutional and leadership capacity, and strengthen institutional coordination and synergies between ministries.

The United States and the European Union should demonstrate more flexibility towards Cambodia to avoid the perception of unfair treatment. They should provide Cambodia with more options instead of forcing it to compromise its sovereignty. Multi-layered, multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder engagement should be encouraged. As a small country, Cambodia needs expanded strategic space to manoeuvre.

Chheang Vannarith is Senior Fellow and Member of the Board at Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2018 in review and the year ahead.

 

 

 

January 7 in Cambodia: One Date, Two Narratives


January 16, 2019

January 7 in Cambodia: One Date, Two Narratives

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A large parade marks the country’s 40th of Victory Over Genocide Day at National Olympic Stadium, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Jan. 7, 2019.

 

On January 7, 2019, Cambodia celebrated the 40th anniversary of its “Victory Day” over the Khmer Rouge regime, which was overthrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese army, accompanied by a number of Khmer Rouge defectors. January 7, 1979 was a historic day that marked the end of a regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. Despite its historic importance, January 7 has been interpreted differently, creating two dominant political narratives or myths in Cambodia: one supporting this historic day and another seeking to undermine it.

For the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen, January 7 is not only considered as either “Liberation Day” or “Victory Day” but also as a “second birthday” for the Cambodian people. However, for the ruling party’s detractors, particularly Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), January 7 is the day that Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia until 1989. Both political leaders and their followers have been at odds over their interpretations of this contentious day. They have viewed it alternately as the liberation or occupation of Cambodia by its traditional enemy and neighbor, Vietnam. The “January 7” rhetoric has dominated Cambodian politics since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge.

This binary political narrative no doubt does more harm than good to Cambodian society. It has created division rather than unity, hostility rather than harmony, and tensions rather than cooperation among Cambodians. The January 7 propaganda should in fact be removed from the top of the agenda of all Cambodian political parties, especially the ruling and main opposition party. As a paper by Future Forum, an independent think tank, observes, “Cambodian politics remains locked in a battle of myths that leaves very little room or constructive discussion or legitimate dissent from either side.” This observation reflects the Cambodian political landscape where major parties are “stuck” in their own narratives of “January 7” and where familiar names like Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy have been attacking one another with historical claims and counterclaims.

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Supporting the argument of the paper from the Future Forum, this article suggests that Cambodian political leaders should move beyond the two conflicting January 7 narratives. That is, it is time for Cambodian politicians to find common ground, build consensus, and recognize flaws in their own interpretations of this historic day.

Hun Sen and his ruling party, for example, should not continue to dwell on political rhetoric that has been around for four decades. Instead, the CPP should focus its attention on addressing more relevant and pressing social issues facing contemporary Cambodia such as corruption, land-grabbing, human rights violations, illegal immigration, environmental degradation, crime, and traffic accidents. Moreover, reform policies targeted at key sectors including agriculture, education, health, and justice should be the CPP’s major political propaganda, not the controversial narrative of January 7.

Hun Sen’s CPP has to be realistic and forward-looking rather than boasting about past achievements and being myopic, if the ultimate goal is to gain popular support from Cambodians, the majority of whom were born after the Khmer Rouge regime.

After all, the CPP’s January 7 narrative does not seem to appeal to the younger generation of Cambodians, who have not experienced first-hand the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

Although Hun Sen’s strategic and tactical use of control, coercion, and co-option for political domination has worked effectively for him and his party, there is no guarantee that the status quo will remain unchanged, given the evidence of the 2013 national election and the 2017 local election. Thus, Hun Sen and his political elites should seek to build their political credentials beyond the repeated use of the “January 7-as-a-second-birthday-for-Cambodians” rhetoric, or they will be seen as “backward-looking” in the eyes of the new generation of Cambodians who make up a large portion of the Cambodian population.

Not unlike their political rival, CNRP politicians and supporters, especially Sam Rainsy himself, should also move beyond the January 7 narrative. Even though Sam Rainsy was reported to believe that the January 7 rhetoric is no longer an effective means to proselytize younger Cambodians, he still continues to incite anger and hate against Hun Sen and the CPP elites on the grounds of their past involvement with the Khmer Rouge. Further, he has always argued that January 7, 1979 marked the invasion and occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam, not the second birthday for Cambodians as promulgated by the CPP.

In fact, the counterclaims regarding January 7 made by Sam Rainsy and his party members against the CPP, easily seen as their exploitation and reignition of the deep-rooted anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Cambodians for political gain, have detrimental impacts on Cambodian society, at least in the long run. They result in furthering division among Cambodians, provoking violence against the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia, and damaging the already strained relations between Cambodia and Vietnam.

It seems that one of the CNRP’s major ards has been its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. This is understandable, given the widespread anti-Vietnamese sentiment in the Cambodian population; however, Sam Rainsy and the CNRP politicians should no longer seek to undermine Hun Sen and the CPP by inciting hatred among Cambodians toward their Vietnamese counterparts at the expense of Cambodia’s relations with its eastern neighbor and unity in Cambodia.

The CNRP, like the CPP, should place at the top of their political agenda a plan to address common social issues in Cambodia. Political propaganda of both major parties, although the CNRP has been dissolved, should be directed toward fulfilling the needs of the majority of Cambodians. It is time for Cambodia to move forward, not dwelling too much on past events and exploiting the anti-Vietnamese sentiment, and for Cambodians to work in unity to realize the Cambodian dream – achieving greatness as their ancestors did in the Angkorian era.

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To move beyond the January 7 narratives and find common ground between parties and among Cambodians will require politicians, in particular, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy to realize that their own version of January 7 is similarly inadequate. January 7 should be remembered as both the historic day that Vietnam liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and the day that Vietnam placed Cambodia under a decade-long occupation. It is not possible to have one without the other.

January 7 is a historically important day that has to be remembered and commemorated as part of Cambodia’s modern history. However, this special day should no longer be understood in its current meanings, motivated by conflicting political rhetoric, which tends to divide the nation. Instead, it has to be regarded as the day when Cambodia and its people could have another chance to live, unite, and work together to achieve the Cambodian dream.

Cambodians should not forget the past as they design the future, but they should not let the past negatively affect their future either.

Kimkong Heng is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the School of Education at the University of Queensland.

East Timor: an Ecological Paradise Rises from the Ashes of Occupation


January 4, 2019

East Timor: an Ecological Paradise Rises from the Ashes of Occupation

By: Gregory McCann

https://www.asiasentinel.com/society/east-timor-ecological-paradise-rises-from-ashes-occupation/

 

East Timor’s coastal waters swarm with saltwater crocodiles, dolphins, whales, dugongs, sea turtles and are home to vast beds of sea grasses and coral reefs. And now, in East Timor, an ancient customary law known to the Maubere tribal peoples as tara bandu has been excavated from the ashes of Indonesian occupation and is being revived in an effort to preserve the nation’s remarkable marine life.

 

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Dili, Timor Leste

In fact, East Timor (also called Timor-Leste) is located in the middle of the “Coral Triangle” of Asia, making it one of the most remarkable areas on earth for marine life, containing hundreds of species of reefs and thousands of reef fish. But will the central government in the capital city of Dili ensure that the nation’s considerable natural heritage be preserved for future generations and for ecotourism?

Goats and pigs are sacrificed for the local spirits, their blood spilled on the earth in an effort to glean auspicious signs from invisible onlookers in the village of Biacou,  where tara bandu has been back in effect for the past six years, establishing no-take fishing zones, as well as bans on cyanide poisoning and dynamite fishing. Indonesia, which occupied East Timor from 1975 to 1999, banned these sacred pagan traditions, but it seems the spirits have been patient, and the sacrifice of domestic animals in favor of their wild brethren has been met with enthusiastic approval in recent years.

So exceedingly pristine are Timor’s coastal waters and beaches that Australian crocodiles are swimming 600 miles to hunt and mate there. Both the Indonesians and the Portuguese rulers before them mandated cruel “croc culls”, slaughtering the great beasts whenever and wherever possible. But those days are long gone, and to tribal people such as the Fataluku and Tetum, man-eating saltwater crocodiles are now seen—once again—as sacred totems, and a potential ecotourism draw (tourists pay for the “croc experience” in Darwin, Australia, so why couldn’t East Timor do the same?).

Croc threats aside, this place sounds like paradise. Nino Konis Santana National Park wraps around the country’s entire northeastern edge like a gleaming blue mitten on the azure seas, ostensibly protecting fish, sea birds, and reptiles alike. It is a place where dolphins leap, whales breach, and turtles paddle, where petrels and frigate birds majestically glide and soar above the blue waves; its white sand beaches put Thailand’s to shame.

But is there trouble on the horizon in this eye-pleasing destination? Just last year, 15 Chinese fishing boats were seized in Timorese waters with thousands of shark fins in their holds, and those are just the ships that were apprehended. The government has published its “2011-2030 Development Plan,” which includes plans for sustainable fisheries, but this will need to be carefully managed when artisanal fishing becomes commercial fishing. Foreign poaching vessels from numerous countries will also have to be kept out.

Chinese influence is on the rise in East Timor, though former President Jose Ramos-Horta brushes this idea off as an old cliché. However, despite the ex-president’s objections (he currently resides in Hong Kong), it would be difficult to imagine how East Timor would not appeal to China in terms of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and overall Asia Pacific strategy. In fact, it was China who built East Timor’s presidential palace as well as their foreign ministry building.

Analysts often describe certain countries or areas as “strategic,” but it is clear that China views any and every place on earth as strategic. No shoal, island, or stretch of coastline is too remote or insignificant not to factor into Beijing’s plans. Actually, China could very well see East Timor as something akin to a mini-Cambodia, where Chinese influence is overwhelming,  with a vast and strategically valuable coastline, not too far from their new Australian base in Darwin, and a convenient pit stop en route home from their future Antarctic operations.

But the future is far from certain. Will East Timor, free from its Indonesian shackles, become a new frontier to exploit, or will the nation’s leaders in the capital city of Dili have the foresight to set in place protective measures to ensure that this stunningly beautiful country retains its impressive natural history for generations to come? Or, will this country and its strategic coastline find itself dominated by a foreign power once again? Time will tell.

Gregory McCann is the project coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.

 

Harapan entering a grey area, a year before 2020


December 26, 2018

Harapan entering a grey area, a year before 2020

 

 

Opinion  |  by Phar Kim Beng

COMMENT | As I write this, Malaysia, as governed by Pakatan Harapan, is entering both a festive occasion – marked by Christmas and the New Year – and a festering one too. There are five telltale signs of the latter:

  • The tragic death of firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim in the Seafield temple riots.
  • The 55,000 who gathered in Kuala Lumpur for the rally against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd).
  • Authorities seemingly forgetting about M Indira Gandhi’s missing daughter, and about Teoh Beng Hock’s death nearly ten years ago.
  • Close to 15 percent of Malaysia’ population will be above 60 years of age by 2023.
  • About 38,000 Felda settlers getting cost of living aid  and deposits for replanting.

In any one of the above, Harapan has at best either been silent, or belatedly proactive. Meanwhile, the world continues to change in five ways:

  • US President Donald Trump deciding on two simultaneous withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, signalling the end of American presence in two of the most conflict-prone regions in the world.
  • Russia staying quiet on the pullout of American troops, although this strategic withdrawal is akin to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
  • Islamic State and the Taliban also staying quiet, suggesting a deeper motivation to push deeper into the Western world, or perhaps Asia, to wreak more havoc;
  • China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which appeared to be all but irreversible, has been challenged by the Quad (United States, Japan, Australia and India).
  • Japan, one of the key powers in the Indo-Pacific region, continuing to shrink in terms of population, thus further heightening its insecurity.

These are dangerous times. There are some quaint parallels: the elan of the Vietnam War, when Communist forces pushed forward from the north to south in 1975; the fall of Kabul in 1989; the Russian incursion in Georgia in 2008; and the slow but organic militarisation of South China Sea from 2011 onwards when China, for the first time, referred to the area as its “core interest,” a term previously only reserved for Taiwan and Tibet.

But there is no telling if Harapan is aware of the whiplash effects of these world events. Political scientist Arthur Stein once warned of the importance of “relative gains” in international relations, wherein all great powers see gains and losses in zero-sum terms.

Granted, Malaysia has a foreign and defence policy that seems to be geared towards the centrality of ASEAN. But there is no telling if it wants to adjust to a post-US-Japanese world and the emerging Sino-Russian world order.

East Asia is entering this post-US-Japanese world. The US had always made it a point to keep Tokyo informed of any dramatic moves.

But now, at the speed of a tweet, Trump proceeded to announce the withdrawal of the US from the theater of the Middle East and South Asia, without notifying its staunchest East Asian allies Japan and South Korea.

Japan got its first taste of the ‘Nixon shock’ when the then-US president announced his plan to visit China in 1971, before Nixon announced his New Economic Programme, which included abandoning the gold standard.

The country would be shocked again when it received no thanks from Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah of Kuwait for its financial contribution to Operation Desert Storm led by then-president George Bush.

What Trump did in recent weeks must constitute a third shock for Japan – a major ally pulling out of two regions at the same time, even with the opposition of outgoing Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

By pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan, Japan must be reeling from the fear that its security relationship with Washington can be subject to the same forces that catapulted Trump to power – populism and the American far right.

China and Russia must also be smiling in glee, with the American admission of the impossibility of conducting simultaneous conflicts in two regions.

Malaysia is entering a world of uncertain geopolitical realities and flux.

What adds to the instability is the fact that it is ruled by a new coalition of four parties now beset by infighting – and one still due for a possibly messy transition at the top.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad still looks set to hands over the reins to Anwar Ibrahim, although there are signs that things are less than rosy behind the scenes – such as when the daughter of the latter quit her posts in government.

The new year seems likely to put Malaysia in a pinch as it looks ahead to 2020.


PHAR KIM BENG is a multiple award-winning head teaching fellow on China and the Cultural Revolution at Harvard University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

 

 

Malaysian reform dynamics


December 8, 2018

Malaysian reform dynamics

 

by  Andrew Harding, NUS

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/12/06/malaysian-reform-dynamics/

The pattern of political reform following a regime change is usually predictable: the reformers gain popular support, make changes to the constitution and then use constitutional politics to achieve their ends. But Malaysia’s current period of political change is straying far from this pattern. Instead, Malaysia is proving that peaceful transition and reform may be possible without debates about constitutional amendment.

 

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The new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government — a coalition of four political parties — was unexpectedly elected to power on 9 May 2018, replacing the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government. Much of the PH’s current political leadership team were part of the BN’s largest member party and now discredited United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), including a former prime minister, two former deputy prime ministers and a slew of former ministers and members of parliament.

The election also revived the political career of former and now incumbent Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir had gone down in history as one of the strong men of Asian authoritarianism. His recent campaign replaced this image with one of a moderate democrat who believes in a free press, a two-party parliamentary system and the rights of citizens.

Mahathir’s campaigning against his old party carried enough rural Malay voters into the PH fold to overturn the BN’s dominance. Voters were appalled at the level of corruption in former prime minister Najib Razak’s government. The contrast was stark between voters’ own economic struggles — including the extra burden of a goods and services tax — and the wanton expenditure of leaders like Najib and his wife.

While the PH have not yet changed a single word of the constitution, it has already redefined the state as one based on good governance, the rule of law, parliamentarism and the separation of powers. The PH has proposed signing the international human rights covenants (except for ICERD), abolishing the death penalty, and addressing the political and legislative autonomy of East Malaysian states Sabah and Sarawak.

The question now is whether the reform process is politically sustainable and can be constitutionally entrenched.

One challenge facing the PH coalition is that any ordinary legislative changes — let alone constitutional amendments — can easily be blocked in Malaysia’s upper house, which is still controlled by senators appointed by the former BN government. The upper house has already rejected a bill to repeal the Fake News Act that was rushed through parliament by Najib before the election to restrict criticism of the government regarding the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

There are fears that the PH coalition may simply revert to the Malaysian dominant-coalition stereotype. These are partly fears that the leader of the People’s Justice Party Anwar Ibrahim — the largest party of the PH coalition — will assert what he sees as his entitlement to the prime-ministership.

There are also worries about factionalism within Anwar’s party, quite apart from tensions between the four coalition partners. As matters stand, Mahathir is supposed to hand over to Anwar within two years of the election. At 93 years old, Mahathir could hardly plan to go on longer than that, whatever the politics dictates.

For the time being at least, the reformers are in charge.  Attorney General Tommy Thomas and Legal Affairs Minister Liew Vui Keong are implementing the PH’s campaign promises. These include the good-governance reforms that Mahathir wryly suggests would not have been so extensive had the PH expected to win the election. Bringing those guilty of corruption to account is the major priority at this point, and ensuring that problems such as the 1MDB scandal will not occur again is also high on the agenda.

Despite the flurry of reforms, announcements, prosecutions and policy changes since the election, most legal changes — such as abolition of the death penalty — remain to be implemented. These depend on parliamentary arithmetic.

But over the next two to three years, as current senators leave office, there will be opportunity for the PH government to gain much more control over the reform process. These reforms may well involve changes to the Senate itself, which has far too many appointed members and no longer fulfils its original purpose of protecting states’ rights. This of course assumes that PH will remain stable and reform-oriented.

Entrenching the reforms in the longer-term may also be a challenge. While an extended period of constitutional debate would be beneficial for the somewhat ad hoc current reform proposals, politics can change quickly. This could side-line reform and reemphasise ethnic and religious issues. The PH still has to establish its credentials with the majority of Malay voters. At the same time, Anwar has consistently advocated democratic reforms and suffered in jail as a result of overweening executive power.

These reforms are so long overdue that many of them could become fiats accomplis, or matters of consensus rather than contention. For the moment, the further down this road the reforms go, the harder it will be to reverse them.