An Interview with Mu Sochua


December 11, 2017

An Interview with Mu Sochua

In Jakarta on 8 December, politicians, activists, and scholars dug deeper into the themes covered in New Mandala‘s ongoing series on Southeast Asia’s crisis of democracy at a special forum hosted by the TIFA Foundation. Among the speakers was Mu Sochua, a senior member of Cambodia’s Cambodian National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by a court order on 16 November 2017. A long time human rights advocate and former Minister for Womens Affairs, she has now joined other CNRP figures in exile after being threatened with imprisonment. New Mandala editor Liam Gammon met with her for a brief interview about how the opposition is adapting to the crackdown.

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CNRP’s Mu Sochua on Democracy in Cambodia–Interview New Mandala

Do you think that by shutting off institutional avenues for opposition to his rule, Hun Sen has raised the probably of some sort of popular uprising—some kind of “people power” movement?

They are waiting for the opposition leaders to give the signal. In 2013 when we contested the result of the elections, we were in the streets for over three or four months. Up to half a million people were with us; we were at park called Freedom Park, it was the most beautiful, beautiful moment for democracy in Cambodia and never had it happened before.

Our party is not just a political party. It comes from a movement, from civil society, that has been able to plant democracy’s seeds in Cambodia for quite some time—after the Paris peace accords. It is actually the UN program on human rights free and fair elections that brought the Cambodian people the principles of democracy, of free and fair elections.

So, after that moment, people and then on the fourth of January 2014 Hun Sen brought the tank, shot the workers—since then, we have not been able to bring the people back. But then after that moment, when they shut down Freedom Park, I myself led a group—there were just two or three of us and then it went on to thousands and thousands—for three months, then I was arrested. Put in jail. And now my colleagues are now in jail for 20 years.

If you look back on the long road leading up to the crackdown this year, are you and other opposition figures thinking about some of the strategic mistakes that the opposition may have made? If you had to identify some things that you would have done differently, what would they be?

There are always gaps and short-sighted decisions. For example, at that moment when the tanks were coming at us—and every day we had half a million people with us—we were fighting all the time about whether to take the crowd to the right, or the left, you know—to confront the parliament and the government, to cross over the bridge, or whatever. So I was always in the camp of the young people—hot-headed, but my leaders are more like “no, we can’t do that”. I come from civil society, you see.

So we have always been, and even today, accused of not having good leadership. But we had half a million people—why did we not take over parliament? And we went over that for so long, even today. But one thing was very clear: we do not want to have bloodshed. Because of our past genocide. At any time in the day when Sam Rainsy said “march”, people will come out and march. But we’re not doing that. And we went into parliament after a year of boycott. When we signed the agreement with Hun Sen, we were too quick to accept the agreements. He [Hun Sen] promised that there be reforms in the judiciary, he promised that the opposition minority would be recognised, he promised that we could have our own TV. We signed the agreement, but we didn’t look at the details, and he didn’t deliver on the details. We lost at that.

Do you think there was an element of complacency within the leadership about whether Hun Sen would actually follow through on those commitments?

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Not complacency, but I think we were too—we made an agreement on the basis of mutual trust. But Hun Sen is not a democrat. And our mistake it that we assumed that he is a democrat.

And this is a central question for outside observers. If we’re making this claim that Hun Sen has killed Cambodian democracy, by implication we’re saying that from 1993 until 2017 it was a functioning democracy. In hindsight do you think that in reality this is not really the fall of a democracy or the fall of a pretence of democracy?

Full democracy, no. A façade of democracy. He allowed us to function in that framework. And the donors—we all knew. But we kept on going for democratic change within elections. But when he saw, and he sees now, that he will never win a truly democratic—even half democratic—elections, that’s why he had to kill it. However, we have 25 years of grassroots—this is not just elitist democracy, but grassroots. So we refuse to say we give up. We are banned from politics for 5 years, but we’re still very active. And we have to reconnect with civil society and our structure inside [Cambodia].

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On the China question: there’s an idea that’s getting stronger that part of the reason why Hun Sen has been so confident in cracking down on the media, civil society, and opposition forces is because Beijing, as it were, will have his back. I guess the question is are we in danger of overstating the influence of China? Would he have done this anyway?

No. I think the international community has been complacent. They want to say “okay, we’re finished with Cambodia”.

They saw it coming! The last time they had a real donor meeting with Hun Sen was four or five years ago. They made no demands whatsoever. And on top of that, I think they forget that Hun Sen needs the legitimacy. Hun Sen has a lot of money. His children have a lot of money. His cronies have a lot of money—invested in Australia, in France, in the USA. So when the US has imposed vis sanctions, within a day, Hun Sen says: “will you reconsider”. It touches a nerve, because he wants China and he wants the west at the same time. But the west is not willing to use its leverage.

It’s interesting that you mention the donor meetings, because they have become infamous as a ritual whereby the donors make of Hun Sen, there are promises that are never fulfilled, and they come back next year and nothing’s changed. Hun Sen has always done terrible things to the opposition—1997 for instance—and gotten away with it. Do international donors have to share in some of the blame for the current situation?

They put in five billion dollars and here it is. Look the judiciary. What reforms have taken place? Look at the scale of corruption. And even now, Australia, for example, still wants to engage Hun Sen, through this $50 million [sic] refugee deal that they made. What is this? So there is no way Australia can say “we didn’t know, we’re not part of it, we tried our best”. I just went to meet with your foreign minister, she still wants to engage Hun Sen. She doesn’t want to isolate Hun Sen. It’s because of the $50 million deal. This is really peeling [away] democracy. And this is how dictators survive. Even killers survive.

So if the threat of withholding western largesse hasn’t changed the regime’s behaviour before, why should we expect it to change now?

Before, Hun Sen didn’t have a lot of money. Now he has a lot of money. “He” meaning all his cronies, his generals. So they have to protect their territory. Before they fought to survive, now they fight to keep the money. To keep the prestige that they have, to keep the comfort that they have. But all of this could crumble very quickly, because he doesn’t fight on principle or anything, he fights just for his own power, so he’s very vulnerable.

This seems almost a silly question to ask, but do you see any role for Southeast Asian governments in disciplining Hun Sen?

Surely. Surely. We have to take measures to prevent another tragedy in Cambodia. If you study the ruling party structure, it has not changed from the communist structure. They had cells, groups, from a group of five, a group of ten, that spy on each other. Now, Hun Sen is doing the same thing. The parents are spying on the children because the youth are not voting for Hun Sen. But they are buying the parents, to force their children to vote for Hun Sen. And the children say no! in the past it was the children that spied on their parents—to see who is communist and who is not, to see who is Khmer Rouge and who is not. It’s the same type of control.

I assume you and your opposition colleagues are still communicating frequently?

There’s a lot of difficulty.

At what point do opposition leaders countenance trying, from abroad, to encourage street mobilisation?

Right now if we were to do it, I don’t know. We haven’t been able to meet in the same room to strategise. So it’s like dealing with this crisis one thing at a time, and that’s why we’re now saying we need to meet.

Within a party there are always differences. So we can fight within the party, and come up with a concrete game plan. Some people say “why don’t we go in. Why don’t we mobilise the people and march again?” Then some people say: “Are you crazy?” Some people are saying “how about a government in exile?”. But definitely, we are—

—strictly speaking, you haven’t won an election yet, so a government in exile might seem a little bit premature…

A shadow government. Although we knew that in 2013 we won, so we are capable of getting the votes. But we don’t want to think that way [about a government in exile], because that means long term outside, in exile. That would kill the hope of the people inside. We have to keep the hope alive.

So you envision a situation in which you and your colleagues could return to Cambodia?

Yeah. Any day. It could be any day. That’s why the role of ASEAN, the role of southeast Asian leaders—it may only take one person, to talk to Hun Sen and say, “what about a dignified exit strategy”.

Who do you think has that kind of clout in Southeast Asia?

Japan.

Do you see any movement there? Have they been sympathetic?

In the past, yes, it’s always been Japan who talked to Hun Sen.

The United States?

They are great at taking actions, but it antagonises. It’s good they deliver. But Hun Sen can say, “oh, it’s the United States”. And all the donors can say “that’s the US.”

It’s interesting that there’s this impulse to talk about the external influences, because one of the criticisms of the opposition, and of Sam Rainsy in particular, was that he was better at cultivating support and networks in Washington or Paris than he was in Phnom Penh.

No, no, no. Totally wrong. Of course, high ranking officials talk to him. But his popularity is in the country. Sam Rainsy can go anywhere in the country, the crowd around him. He’s a symbol. Like Khem Sokha. Even me, when I go to my country, I don’t need anything, I walk around and people get me a motorcycle.

We represent the hope of the people. He is educated, he speaks the language of an educated person. But if he were so close to France, to the Élysée, France would be working with us today. France is not working. We were saying, “France? Where are you?”

You have to live a life on the move now. Living in exile is expensive, isolating, stressful—do you feel safe in exile? Do you expect to be, or have you been, contacted by representatives of the regime?

In Thailand. When I go to Thailand, I don’t feel safe. Now that I talk a lot, that I am the face of the opposition—I’m on BBC, I’m on Aljazeera—I worry. You never know; you don’t want to touch these nerves. And I always go alone. The expenses are always covered somehow. And the loneliness, I have to deal with that. My children want me home, my grandchild wants me home. Of course, I just went through the passing away of my husband. So it’s been a long, difficult two years. However, serving democracy keeps me alive. And I refuse to slow down, although I wish I could, but that’s not a choice. And I have the choice of staying home in Cambodia, but staying behind in a cell. Being captured.

Now there are some CNRP figures left in Cambodia, are they able to engage in any political activity, or are they laying low?

No, they are laying low. Even in communicating with them, we try to not endanger them. We have many in Thailand as well, so even speaking to them—I’m going to go through Thailand, they come to meet me at the airport. I don’t go to visit where they are. And their places have been raided by the local police in Thailand.

So to put it in simple terms, you see the Thai regime as unfriendly to the opposition?

So far they have not kicked us out, but they have given us the message: don’t do anything political. But with Khun Kasit [Piromya], who is the go-between between us and the military, we have been able to stay in Bangkok.

Although you say you have the hope of going back to Cambodia, in the back of your mind do you think about a life outside of Cambodia forever?

[Smiles]. I don’t want to think about it. Because my husband’s ashes are at home. I had less than 24 hours to pack my bags. We had a beautiful home, and a beautiful life. My people are beautiful people. It pains me to stay away from them. It pains me to hear them crying, going back to the farm, going back to being motor taxi drivers, are used to living in exile, are used to hiding [sic], it’s very painful.

The clock is ticking; there’s going to be some kind of election in Cambodia next year, do you think there’s a possibility that Hun Sen could climb down from his current strategy and there could be some kind of free and fair contest? And if not, are you planning towards subsequent elections as a next goal?

At this point we want to be optimistic, so we are focused on lobbying ASEAN. We have done a lot of work in Europe and the US, now it’s ASEAN.

Do you have realistic hopes of being able to contest in 2018?

Yep. We only need six months. Because we are so sure of our strategy.

So in the short term, what do you define as success?

Free[ing] Kem Sokha on 10 December. And for us to go home.

Constitutional Democracy and Royalty


December 11, 2017

Constitutional Democracy and Royalty: The Dignified and the Efficient

by Nathaniel Tan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT | On Friday, we discussed the appropriateness of celebrities commenting on politics and current affairs.

Today, as Season 2 of “The Crown” is upon us, perhaps we can discuss constitutional monarchy and some of the challenges it faces today.

“The Crown” may be particularly relevant as, after all, many constitutional monarchies in the Commonwealth are largely modelled on the British one.

 

Related imageHer Majesty Queen Elizabeth reigns and Prime Minister Theresa May governs. This system works as long as each institution performs its duties correctly, and respects their boundaries diligently.

I probably know Peter Morgan’s Queen Elizabeth more than I do the real one, and I have never had the slightest bit of interest in the British monarchy prior to this little TV series.

A persistent theme in Morgan’s large body of work on the monarchy is the place of the institution in ever-evolving modern society, and the challenges monarchs face in maintaining the dignity and purpose of the monarchy.

Checks and balances

Constitutional monarchy evolved over time from absolute monarchy, a time where the monarch’s word was law. Eventually, forces for democracy in some countries moved societies away from such absolute rule, but chose to maintain royal institutions, having them co-exist with democratic practices.

It is often a subtle balancing act to be sure, but in theory, the crown and the government – the dignified and the efficient, as it were – are institutions that are meant to balance and strengthen one another.

This system works as long as each institution performs its duties correctly, and respects their boundaries diligently.

The rights of the monarch

The most definitive of said boundaries is that the monarchy must always be above politics. It is the duty of politicians and governments to politick and govern, and it is the duty of the monarch to never interfere with either.

The concept of the dignified and the efficient mentioned above was first written about by British journalist and businessman, Walter Bagehot in 1867 in his enduringly influential treatise on the English Constitution.

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Bagehot also wrote at length about the rights of the monarch, with regards to governance – namely the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn.  The manner in which Bagehot writes of these rights seems to suggest that said rights are to be executed in a private manner, between monarch and prime minister, and perhaps with the cabinet.

Influencing politics

I could be wrong, but I imagine both Bagehot and current effective and popular constitutional monarchs would be horrified at the idea of a sitting monarch making comments in the press that could be seen to be politically influential.

While the definition of what is or isn’t politically influential will surely be debated by some, I think we can perhaps examine a few cases in which a comment may be one or the other.

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For instance, if a queen was to make a public comment in the media about a politician’s character (especially an active one that is currently attached to an active party, and/or one who may be seeking public office), whether positive or negative, such a comment may be construed as being politically influential.

In “The Crown”, Queen Elizabeth has a conversation with her grandmother, Queen Mary, about the duty of the monarch to remain neutral. In this conversation, Queen Mary warns that even a smile or a frown in a particular situation can be construed as undue favour. If this is so, what more a direct comment on a politician’s character?

Being above politics

I’m not one to idealise our former colonial masters, or somehow compare one monarchy to another. Perhaps all we can say for now is that the most effective and popular constitutional monarchies existing today are the ones where monarchs have gone to extraordinary lengths to stay above politics.

The phrase ‘above politics’ purposely advocates the notion that there should be some institutions of government that are ‘higher’ than the worldly taint of shifting political winds and endless jostling for electoral favours.

Challenging though it can be on a personal level for monarchs, history suggests that this approach is the one that ultimately best serves both the monarchy and the nation as a whole.

Trump’s Reagan-like Relative Moralism


November 10, 2017

Trump’s Reagan-like Relative Moralism

https://www.economist.com

Fortunately, he has yet to notice

IF DENIZENS of political Washington recall the commotion, way back on February 24th, when President Donald Trump’s press team excluded CNN, the New York Times and others from a White House briefing, most probably shrug at the memory. Editors lodged formal complaints at the time, not least because the snub came hours after Mr Trump told cheering conservative activists that the “fake news media” are “the enemy of the people”. But there have been many commotions since, and worse snubs.

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Yet there are places where that kerfuffle in a White House corridor left a mark. Take Cambodia, the South-East Asian country whose autocratic government charged two ex-reporters in November with “espionage”, citing their previous work for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news outlet funded by the American government. There is a direct connection between the detention of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who face up to 15 years in prison, and that moment of early Trumpian bombast. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, pounced on the humbling of reporters by the White House, declaring with approval on February 27th that Mr Trump, like him, sees the press causing “anarchy”. The gloating did not stop there. Denouncing a CNN report on sex trafficking in Cambodia in August, Mr Hun Sen grumbled that “President Trump is right: US media is very tricky.” Cambodian officials expelled the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based outfit that promotes free and fair elections with funding from the American and other Western governments, and ordered radio stations to stop carrying broadcasts by RFA and the Voice of America.

Escalating the fight, the government accused the main opposition party of being involved in an American-backed plot to overthrow Mr Hun Sen, offering as evidence images of opposition activists meeting diplomats and Senator John McCain of Arizona. Livid at being rebuked by the American embassy in Cambodia, Mr Hun Sen took his complaints to the top. Using a summit of Asian leaders in Manila on November 13th to praise Mr Trump face-to-face, Mr Hun Sen called him “a great person” wisely uninterested in human rights. “I don’t know if you are like me, or I am like you,” he swooned. He had just one gripe. Mr Trump should “admonish” diplomats at the American embassy who were working against his “great principle” of non-interference in the politics of foreign lands.

A summit photograph of Mr Hun Sen with Mr Trump, thumbs-up, beaming, was hailed by Cambodia’s former foreign minister as proof that it is better to “meet with the boss” than talk to “slaves”. It was a remarkable moment, and a misjudgment. Mr Hun Sen, along with other despots and autocrats, saw a soulmate in an American President who campaigned by attacking the free press and the judiciary, who threatened to lock up his opponent once elected, who kept secret his tax returns, who suggested that the presidential election might be rigged, and who scorned the idea that his country is a democratic model, growling: “The world sees how bad the United States is.” That led the Cambodian leader to a gamble which, from outside the country, seems highly confusing: to try to recruit America’s president as an ally in a purge built around an anti-American conspiracy theory. It failed. On November 16th the White House issued a statement expressing “grave concern” after Cambodia’s highest court dissolved the main opposition party, declaring that next year’s elections, on current course, “will not be legitimate, free or fair” and warning of “concrete steps” in response.

Cambodia’s story is instructive. Mr Trump has flouted norms upheld—at least in theory—by all modern holders of his office. He has scorned the very idea of American exceptionalism, telling Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh in May: “America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture, we are not here to tell other people how to live.” A forthcoming national-security strategy is set to mark a step back from global leadership, towards a narrower, more zero-sum view of American interests. Nonetheless, some foreign rulers who felt emboldened to repress domestic enemies with impunity have been startled to find that no Trump doctrine reliably protects them.

The Trump White House is far too chaotic, riven by infighting and buffeted by the impulses of the president, to have clear doctrines about democracy promotion, or many other weighty questions of geopolitics, says a senior administration official. A position may earn signs of support from Mr Trump, but “you can take that to the bank for as long as you are talking to him”, says the official—before a presidential tweet says the opposite minutes later. Mr Hun Sen’s blunder, the official says, was to project his own absolutism onto America. “He seems to think that now we have this rich old guy in charge of the United States, [Mr Trump] can snap his fingers and everything will change.” American government is messier than that. With a small country like Cambodia, policy remains broadly set by career foreign service officers (among them the American ambassador), by staff in the National Security Council and by members of Congress sincerely aggrieved by Mr Hun Sen’s assaults on democracy and news outlets. That group includes Mr McCain and his Republican colleagues Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Congressman Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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President Donald Trump and Hungary’s Strong Man Viktor Orban

A second telling case may be found in Hungary, a European ally and NATO member state whose increasingly autocratic government greeted Mr Trump’s election with glee, only to overreach in its turn. Relations between President Barack Obama and the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban were icy, chilled by the passage of laws curbing the independence of the press, the civil service and the courts. They were made worse by official attempts to rehabilitate anti-Semitic Hungarian leaders from the second world war, and by Mr Orban’s admiration for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At one point in 2014, the State Department banned six Hungarian officials from entering America on suspicion of corruption—a dramatic step against a NATO ally. One of them tried to sue America’s top diplomat in Budapest for defamation.

Mr Orban is proud of being the first European leader to endorse Mr Trump, says the Hungarian Ambassador to Washington, Laszlo Szabo. It is “very obvious” that the two leaders share similar views on defending their countries from illegal immigrants, a term which the ambassador uses to cover the vast majority of those who reached Europe during the refugee crisis of 2015. They also agree on the public’s yearning for strong, sovereign governments that stand up for their national interests with what Mr Szabo calls a “healthy self-consciousness”. In April the Hungarian Parliament amended a higher-education law in a way that threatened to close down the Central European University (CEU), a graduate institute founded by the Hungarian-American billionaire, George Soros, a bogeyman to conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. In June Hungary passed a law restricting foreign funding for civil-society groups, again singling out Mr Soros, and triggering legal action by the European Commission in Brussels, which believes the measure may breach EU fundamental rights. If Mr Orban expected to be thanked by the Trump administration or Republicans in Congress for this assault on Mr Soros, he was disappointed.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut, told Mr Orban that the law against CEU threatens academic freedoms. Hungary forgot that Congress has no desire to encourage despotic attacks on the many American universities with branches overseas. The Trump-era State Department called the law on civil-society groups “another step away” from Hungarian commitments to the values of the EU and of NATO. In October the American chargé d’affaires, or acting ambassador to Hungary, David Kostelancik, delivered a blistering speech on press freedoms, decrying the growing dominance of “pro-government figures” over the media, who quash articles critical of the government. Treading a delicate path, Mr Kostelancik conceded that “My president is not shy about criticising the media when he believes reporters get it wrong or show bias,” but noted that “in the finest traditions of our free press”, the targets of Mr Trump’s wrath often point out that “not every criticism of the government is ‘fake news’.” Most pointedly, Mr Kostelancik deplored the “dangerous” decision of media outlets linked to the Hungarian government to publish the names of individual journalists deemed “threats” to the country.

A former Republican congressman who now works as a lobbyist for the Hungarian government, Connie Mack, supported a handful of members of the House of Representatives as they complained about the chargé d’affaires to Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state. Still, Mr Trump has neither sided with Mr Orban nor yet welcomed him to the Oval Office. Frustrated amid the chandeliered splendour of the Hungarian embassy in Washington, Mr Szabo calls his State Department critics “old Obama administration technocrats” who do not speak for Mr Trump. Hungary’s problems do not reach the president, he says. “Decisions about Hungary are not happening at the levels we would like.”

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi– A Fantastic Guy doing “a fantastic job” says President Donald Trump

A third and final case study involves Egypt, a large, important and problematic ally whose strongman leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (with Trump at The White House), has not found the new administration as easy to handle as he seemed to expect. Few modern presidents have pressed Egypt hard on human rights, placing greater emphasis on the stability of the most populous Arab country, and on co-operation with the Egyptian military, intelligence and counter-terrorist services. Relations have been sweetened with tens of billions of dollars in American aid since 1948, much of it to buy weapons.

Early expectations for Trump administration policy were not high. Mr Trump praised Mr al-Sisi as a “fantastic guy” doing a “fantastic job” under trying circumstances, even as the State Department was preparing a formal memorandum to Congress accusing Egyptian authorities of arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances and reported extrajudicial killings. But in an unprecedented move the State Department froze nearly $100m in military and economic aid to Egypt, citing human-rights concerns, a move that a senior figure in the Obama administration applauds and calls “a significant piece of pain to impose”. Senators of both parties applied pressure to the State Department, freezing some aid for Egypt on their own initiative.

Mr Trump also secured the release of Aya Hijazi, an American dual national jailed on charges for which the authorities offered no serious evidence, after founding a charity to help street children. Her story caught Mr Trump’s attention—this is crazy, he told aides—and he proudly invited her to the White House after her release. The president, who is often highly interested in whether he, personally, will be given credit for an action, has said nothing in public about the other 60,000 political prisoners thought to languish in Egyptian cells.

A White House official says Mr Trump’s Egypt policy is proof that the President does work to promote human rights, despite his unconventional rhetoric. The approach of President George W. Bush was “to very publicly endorse this idea of pushing democracy and freedom. You saw the Obama administration very publicly embarrass leaders and say you must address these human rights issues,” says the official. But thanks to behind-the-scenes pressure, based on strong personal relations, Mr Trump “gets the results”. This aide casts the President as a Reagan-like realist, treating radical Islam as something akin to the communism of the age and working with imperfect allies, when necessary, to advance major reforms, notably in Saudi Arabia. “Look at the speeches that Bush and Obama gave, and nothing changed.”

Hardline nationalists in the President’s inner circle, notably his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, and colleagues in the Domestic Policy Council, enjoy unusual clout during debates about refugees or UN reform, leaving them locked in what one former official calls “open warfare” with NSC staff. Despite this, democracy promotion schemes continue on autopilot in many countries, shielded by multi-year budgets.

How America projects its values has real-world effects, says Steve Pomper, who worked on human rights in the Obama-era NSC and is now at the International Crisis Group. “It’s a choice: giving people reason to hope if they are languishing in prison, or giving their jailers hope that they can act with impunity.” Mr Trump’s instincts are causing “grievous damage,” concludes a senior administration official. But foreign autocrats are also learning that America’s president does not rule alone. “The president may scorn checks and balances,” says the official, “but we still have them.”

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Relative moralism”

 

Cambodia: Democracy Update


December 9, 2017

Cambodia: Democracy Update

by Sorpong Peou

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

In recent months, the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken stronger steps to guarantee a win in the national election scheduled for July 2018. Hun Sen’s objective is simple — to prevent his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) from losing power by whatever means necessary.

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Prime Minister HE Samdech Techo Hun Sen– sustaining economic economic growth and maintaining national security. World Bank October 2017 Update is positive

Hun Sen has relied on a combination of three tactics — coercion, co-option and control — to maintain his domination over Cambodia’s politics in the name of protecting national security. Those who cannot be co-opted into the CPP’s sphere through material rewards can be coerced into submission, and those who do submit are still kept under tight control.

The CPP is also resource-rich, well equipped with coercive means and in control of state institutions, especially the armed forces and the judiciary. Those who have refused to defect to the CPP or who resist it face acts of intimidation and threats of punishment.

Disarming the CPP’s political opposition involves taking pre-emptive action to make it difficult for opposition leaders to mobilise effective political support far ahead of the 2018 election. Hun Sen has been successful in suppressing the political opposition and shutting out any help offered to his opponents. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been the primary target. The recent jailing of its president, Kem Sokha, is a good example of Hun Sen’s tactics. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP ensures the CPP will not face any credible challenges in 2018.

Any organisations, domestic or foreign, perceived as politically supportive of or sympathetic to opposition parties are also viewed as potential targets by the CPP. Media outlets have come under pressure, especially those that broadcast news produced by foreign media agencies such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The government recently shut down The Cambodia Daily, a major English language newspaper in the country, and sent its owner a bill of several million dollars for its failure to pay taxes. In August 2017, the government closed the US-funded National Democratic Institute and expelled its staff from Cambodia.

Hun Sen claims these ‘legal’ actions against the CPP’s political opponents and its critics are about protecting national security. Is this true?

The answer is no. Since the end of the Cold War, Cambodia has not encountered any serious external threat. In fact, the country has been blessed with goodwill from countries around the world. Cambodia did the right thing when it joined ASEAN in 1999. In spite of some unresolved territorial disputes and minor border clashes between Cambodia and two of its fellow ASEAN members, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodian relations with its neighbours have been relatively peaceful. Western democracies may want to see regime change, but evidently have not done anything credible to undermine the CPP.

The unarmed opposition to the CPP does not pose any threat to Cambodian national security either, but it has threatened to undermine the ruling party’s political dominance. Although the CPP won in the 2013 national election, it lost 22 seats to the CNRP, giving the opposition more leverage over the ruling elite. In spite of good economic growth, ratings of Hun Sen’s performance among urban populations remain low. If elections were free and fair, the CPP would end up losing.

While they have done a lot of good for the country, including taking part in the war against the murderous Pol Pot regime and helping many Cambodians to enjoy the fruits of economic growth, the CPP elite have reason to worry about their political future.

Hun Sen and other top CPP leaders have been accused of human rights violations and rampant corruption and thus can never be sure of what might happen to them if they were to lose power. Hun Sen has already been threatened with legal action — another reason why the CPP has tightened control over the security forces and the judicial system, using the courts to prosecute any serious opponents threatening its survival.

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Cambodia remains an attractive tourist destination

Cambodia’s politics of survival is likely to continue unless or until members of the CPP elite and those in the opposition see their common problem: the inherent weakness of Cambodia’s state institutions, which perpetuates the toxic dynamics of threat and counter-threat. Both sides tend to demonise each other. They keep engaging in the nasty politics of character assassination, killing any possibility of advancing a common interest or any hopes for solidifying the culture of dialogue.

Cambodian leaders have a big choice to make. Either they continue along this current trend with no end in sight, or they band together to build the country’s democratic state institutions for the benefit of their own nation. Working together is certainly the only way out and the best option, but this is likely to fall on deaf ears. This is the tragedy of survival politics in Cambodia — a real threat to democracy and its national security.

Sorpong Peou is President of Science for Peace, based at the University of Toronto, and Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University.

Populist Politics in Indonesia


December 8, 2017

Image result for asia-pacific bulletin

Number 407 | December 7, 2017

ANALYSIS

Populist Politics in Indonesia

by  Ehito Kimura

Indonesia’s Varieties of Populism

Image result for Jokowi and Prabowo

Indonesia–From Sukarno to Jokowi–Prabowo next? “Prabowo offered his angrier and even demagogic populist style. He railed against corruption, called for economic nationalism and for more “firm leadership.”  Prabowo’s populism looked backwards, with the candidate self-styling himself on the image of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president”.–Ehito Kimura

Populist politics burst onto Indonesia’s national stage in 2014 during the country’s presidential election which pitted two leaders with starkly contrasting styles. Joko Widodo, dubbed a “polite” or “technocratic” populist campaigned against the establishment by portraying himself as an affable “man of the people” and a pro-poor reformer with a track record of getting things done. Prabowo Subianto also campaigned against the establishment but more angrily and bombastically, condemning corruption and economic ‘traitors.’ More recently, Jakarta’s 2016 gubernatorial elections saw a surge of Islamic forces engaging in populist-style politics, organizing mass rallies against the Chinese Christian incumbent and claiming that he had committed blasphemy.

What explains the rise of this form of politics in Indonesia?  Is it part of  a global wave of populism seen in places as disparate as Austria and the United States? What role do Indonesian national and local conditions play?  Part of the answer is that populism is not just a movement but also a political strategy. Indonesia is the world’s second largest democracy and voting rates are high.  The varieties of populism in Indonesia can in part be understood as a function of the varied roots of populism and its appeal to different kinds of audiences.

Global Roots

Populism is often associated with reactions against globalization and neo-liberal reform policies.  In Europe, the recent spate of populist elections suggests a frustration with free and open trade as well as migration and immigration, both of which are components of a more globalized world.

Indonesia is no stranger to the politics of globalization, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis led to the fall of the Suharto regime and the transition to democracy.  Since then, Indonesia has been experiencing broad based economic growth, although globalization and neo-liberal development policies over the years also arguably led to rising inequality, a large urban poor, and an emerging but fragmenting middle class including an Islamic middle class which may feel that they have not reaped the full benefits of developmental policies.

In this context, one audience of populist politics is the constituency which views the global economy and ‘foreign powers’ as culprits in their own economic malaise.  This became a central part of Prabowo’s campaign in 2014. It may also be part of the structural foundations of an Islamicized populist politics which in 2016 came to frame the discourse of an ethnic Chinese Christian as incompatible with or even hostile to economic and spiritual well-being. But global factors only partially explain populist appeal.

National Context

Nationally, Indonesia was not experiencing any profound degree of economic or political turmoil in 2014. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration oversaw not just an era of broad-based economic growth but also a decade of political stability, including the institutionalization of many parts of the political system.

However, deep structural problems persist. The sheer size of Indonesia’s population meant that even though poverty rates fell to about 16 percent, tens of millions still lived below the poverty line. Corruption too remained endemic. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) investigated and prosecuted several high level officials for financial improprieties including graft and extortion. In 2012, investigations tarnished the president when several members of his own party were accused of corruption, with some eventually jailed. Furthermore, in the waning years of his term, President Yudhoyono engaged in nepotistic tendencies, pushing to transfer power to his other family members, a prospect that led many voters to eventually abandon his party.

By the 2014 election, it became clear that Indonesians were ready for a change, and both Jokowi and Prabowo offered stark contrasts to the Yudhoyono era. Jokowi emerged as the fresh and humble candidate, forward-looking and drawing on his own biography and his local experiences as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta.  Prabowo offered his angrier and even demagogic populist style. He railed against corruption, called for economic nationalism and for more “firm leadership.”  Prabowo’s populism looked backwards, with the candidate self-styling himself on the image of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

Local Roots

Finally, local politics mattered too. In the wake of Indonesia’s democratization and ‘big-bang’ decentralization in the late 1990s, local leaders had been empowered in new and unprecedented ways. In some cases it led to the decentralization of corruption and personalist politics in the regions. But it also produced leaders like Joko Widodo, whose national popularity emerged from his local level success.

A decade before becoming a household name, then-Mayor Widodo implemented pro-poor reformist policies in areas such as healthcare, education, welfare, and infrastructure. He gained a reputation as a leader who embodied both pro-investment and also pro-poor goals, and he was charismatic yet “down-to-earth” and humble. Under his tenure, his city, Solo rose to the top ranks in national governance and business attractiveness surveys and Mr. Widodo gained national and international recognition.

By the end of his second term, Jokowi’s popularity soared to the extent that in his reelection campaign, he received an extraordinary 90% of the vote. He rode that momentum from the mayor of Solo to the governorship of Jakarta and then all the way to the presidential palace. In other words, Jokowi’s ‘technocratic’ populist appeal can only be understood from its local beginnings.

2019

If recent trends are any indication, the 2019 presidential elections in Indonesia will once again feature populist politics though in what configuration is still impossible to say.  Today, President Jokowi’s popularity remains relatively high, especially around his technocratic agenda such as infrastructure development initiatives. At the same time, the sheen of his reformist and populist image has worn off somewhat as he has become mired in the everyday politics of governing. Prabowo may be seeking an electoral rematch and honing his angry and demagogic populist style. And the role of Islamic populism which surprised many in 2016 may also have a pivotal role to play.

About the Author

Ehito Kimura, is Associate Professor and Undergraduate Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawai’I at Manoa. He can be contacted at Ehito@Hawaii.edu.

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The Moment of Truth for Malaysia’s Race-Based Politics


December 7, 2017

The Moment of Truth for Malaysia’s Race-Based Politics

http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/2123120/moment-truth-malaysias-race-

Image result for najib razak at 2017 UMNO General Assembly

As the UMNO General Assembly gets underway, the time has come to deal with the long-term negative consequences of the party’s Malay-centrism.

by Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

After all the analysing done by pundits on Malaysia’s political dynamics in the post-Mahathir period, the country has now come to the strange point of being in a potential pre-Mahathir period.

There is now the more-than-theoretical possibility that 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will return to lead the country, should the opposition coalition win the coming general election. Though unlikely, the chances of that happening are not exactly slim.

In many ways, Malaysia has been locked in a period of transition for two decades. One could say this was triggered by the Reformasi movement in 1998 when the country’s two top leaders fell out with each other, and behind that, by the socio-economic travails ignited by the Asian Financial Crisis; or one could claim that it began with Mahathir’s retirement in October 2003, or that it started with the surprising results of the 2008 elections when the ragtag opposition managed on election night to win five of the 13 states.

Behind these unending trends lies the fact that a new generation of young leaders – some inspired by the 1998 protests but most thrust into the limelight in 2008 – have been waiting impatiently to take over but are still playing merely a supporting role, not only because the old leaders are still active but also because of the solidity of the discursive and economic domination of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition over the rural population in particular.

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Supporters of the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO.

Then there was the advent of the internet news media, a prominent milestone of which was the founding of the Malaysiakini news website in 1999. This was followed a decade later by The Malaysia Insider (brought to its knees by political pressure in 2016 and since resurrected as The Malaysian Insight) and by other websites. Social media also appeared after the turn of the century to act as an effective new tool for political activism.

Where the opposition parties are concerned, we have seen its major coalitions evolve from the Barisan Alternatif in 1999 to Pakatan Rakyat in April 2008 to Pakatan Harapan in 2015, which since then has evolved to include two newly formed Malay-based parties: Parti Amanah Negara (splintered from the Islamist Parti Agama SeMalaysia (PAS) and Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (consisting of Umno dissidents).

How you can be sure the Malaysian election date will be …

The dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has in the meantime gone through its own transformation, taking more and more conservative racial and religious stances the more its defences crumble, which they did in 2008 and 2013. Abdullah Badawi’s huge popularity in 2004 dissipated surprisingly quickly, and his replacement, Najib Razak, the present prime minister, went from being much more popular than his party at the time of his rise to power to being a big burden to its reputation today.

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Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak: An Albatross Around UMNO’s neck

Transitions that go on and on are of course not really transitions any more. Instead, they define the new normal, if for no other reason, then surely by virtue of the fact that the status quo has over time managed to dig itself in. Malaysian politics in the 21st century is now best described as a state of trench warfare. How, or if, this will end any time soon is the big question.

The return of Mahathir in politics should thus be of the greatest interest to Malaysianists. What are the dangers that Mahathir, a man who has been at the heart of Malaysian politics since the 1960s, sees in the Najib administration which brought this nonagenarian out of retirement so fully that he would form a new party, bring it into the fold of the opposition coalition, and manoeuvre himself into the chair of this body?

Why does he eat humble pie the way he has done, and approach Anwar Ibrahim, the man he so mercilessly sacked in 1998 and put in jail, for rapprochement? Why has he been traversing and criss-crossing the country, with his faithful and aged wife in tow, whipping up dissent against Najib, the son of the man who brought him in from the cold in 1972.

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Najib depends on Malay support

Few know more than him how UMNO politics and Malaysian governance have relied on dubious processes covering corruption, political patronage, vote manipulation, mass media control, and draconian laws. What is different now?

The fact that he calls his new party a “Pribumi” party, highlighting the fact that it is a Malay-based party, is key to understanding what the situation in Malaysia is today, at least to his mind. Bersatu is also a race-based party that immediately and paradoxically wishes to go into coalition with Pakatan Harapan, whose expressed concerns are about good governance and not racial one-upmanship, and in which the Democratic Action Party (DAP), long dubbed by Umno as an anti-Malay Chinese-chauvinist party, is a founding partner.

The Malaysian economy is turning. Will Najib’s luck?

Within that nascent coalition are three de facto Malay-based parties, the other two being Amanah, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat. For the coming elections, these are arrayed alongside the DAP against Umno, the major Malay-based party, surrounded by its weaker or neutered Barisan Nasional allies, and tentatively supported by the Islamist PAS.

No wonder there is talk about a pending Malay voter tsunami against the federal government in the coming elections. The time seems to have come when the Malay community has to deal with the long-term negative consequences of Umno’s Malay-centrism on Malaysian nation building. The economic burdens on the lower classes are heavy, while national economic figures remain positive, and Umno governs in the face of four Malay parties in opposition to it. (No doubt, PAS seems more willing to put in its lot with Umno than with the others).

A vendor at the Siti Khadijah market in Kota Bharu, Kelantan state. The Malaysian economy is buoyant. Photo: AFP

One big definite change over the last few decades has been the emergence of a large enough educated urban Malay middle class whose members appreciate the social stability and cultural pride that only good governance can bring instead of acting out of highly augmented fear of economic and political irrelevance as a community.

The Bumiputra policy was never supposed to be a goal in itself. In fact, the success of Malay-centric nation building requires Malaysian nation building to remain successful. It is here, I believe, that Mahathir’s dilemma lies. Malay-centrism alone will get the Malays nowhere. As a slogan, Malay-centrism rings hollow if the country becomes ever more divided, the poorer classes become ever poorer, and nothing in its present trajectory promises stronger reasons for national pride in the immediate future.

Reforming Malay politics into a shape that accepts the multiculturalism that so clearly marks Malaysian society and that recognises the challenges the digital age poses seems to be the goal, for Mahathir and many others. There is real fear that Malay-centrism a la Umno has lost the plot, and acting in denial of this fact, is dragging the Malay community – and the country as well – into a political black hole.

Dr. Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. The think tank is funded by the state government of Penang, one of three states in Malaysia administered by the opposition, including one under PAS