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.

Cambodia: Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen adopts strong people-centeric leadership instead of liberal democracy


November 3, 2015

Cambodia: Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen adopts strong people-centeric leadership  stead of liberal democracy

by Carlyle A Thayer

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia seen with Philippine President President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. 

Since 2016, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has set about deliberately dismantling his country’s democratic system. Month by month, the country’s political opposition has been eviscerated through a combination of coercion and judicial means, known as ‘lawfare’.

 

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, is one of the world’s longest serving leaders and has now been in charge in Cambodia for 32 years.

Degradation of the democratic process dramatically accelerated during 2017. If this continues, the national elections scheduled for July 2018 will effectively be a one-party affair. Cambodia today is an illiberal democracy rapidly descending into autocratic rule.

In 1991, after Cambodia had spent three years under the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge and ten years under Vietnamese military occupation, the United Nations was mandated to carry out peace-building. It was the largest such mission of its time. Liberal multi-party democracy was enshrined in the constitution. In May 1993, Cambodia held national elections for a Constituent Assembly. Four months later it promulgated a constitution that restored the monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, and re-established the Kingdom of Cambodia. His successor, Norodom Sihamoni, had for many years spent much of his time abroad.

Cambodia’s current constitution was amended in 2004. Five references to liberal multi-party democracy are enshrined within it, including the assertion in the preamble that Cambodia will ‘become once again an “Oasis of Peace” based on the system of a liberal multi-party democracy’.

Article 1 states that ‘the King shall fulfil His functions according to the Constitution and the principles of liberal multi-party democracy’, while Article 50 declares ‘Khmer citizens of both sexes shall respect the principles of national sovereignty and liberal multi-party democracy’.

Article 51 specifies that ‘the Kingdom of Cambodia adopts a policy of liberal multi-party democracy’ and Article 153 affirms that ‘the revision or the amendment of the Constitution cannot be done, if affecting the liberal multi-party democracy system and the constitutional monarchy regime’.

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Cambodian Minister of Public Works, Sun Chanthol and Transport, Sun Chanthol and Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, Minister in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Office.

National elections have been held at regular five-yearly intervals in Cambodia since 1993. In 1998, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) gained majority control and it has won every election since then. In 2012, two opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, merged to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). In the national elections the following year, the CPP suffered a major setback when it lost 22 parliamentary seats, although it still retained control. The opposition charged that the election was rigged and Cambodia experienced a period of domestic turmoil as mass protests erupted.

Since the setback to his control in 2013, Hun Sen has set about systematically destabilising the opposition. His efforts intensified as commune elections scheduled for 4 June 2017 approached. These elections were widely viewed as a bellwether for national elections scheduled for July 2018.

The leader of the CNRP at the time, Sam Rainsy, was forced to flee abroad and in December 2016 he was convicted of ‘falsifying public documents, using fake public documents [and] incitement causing unrest to national security’ in absentia. His successor, Kem Sokha, was forced to step down as party leader while other CNRP members were jailed for ‘inciting social instability’.

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A Member of ASEAN since 1999, Cambodia has been making friends around the world on the basis of mutual respect and win-win partnerships.

In January 2017, Hun Sen cancelled military exercises with the United States for a period of two years, on the grounds that the Cambodian military needed to provide security for the elections and to assist in an anti-drug campaign. Later he abruptly ordered a US Navy unit engaged in humanitarian construction of school toilets and maternity wards to leave the country.

International organisations have also been expelled. In February 2017, Hun Sen countered the opposition by amending the Law on Political Parties so that the CNRP could be dissolved for ‘jeopardising the security of the state’ and ‘provoking incitement’. A Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations was also passed in July 2015. It required the 5000 domestic and foreign NGOs working in Cambodia to register with the government and provide detailed reports on their activities and finances. If they failed to comply, they risked fines, criminal prosecutions or deregistration.

On 11 April 2017, the Cambodian government released an eleven-page report, ‘To Tell the Truth’. It accused Western governments, UN agencies and NGOs of conducting a deliberate campaign of disinformation to denigrate the CPP. The report also accused the United States and the opposition CNRP of colluding to overthrow the Cambodian government.

Yet the Cambodian people continue to support the opposition at the ballot box. Despite efforts by Hun Sen and his CPP to hound and destabilise the opposition, the opposition performed well in the June 2017 commune elections. Even though the CPP received 51 per cent of the vote to the CNRP’s 44 per cent, the CPP lost 436 commune chief seats while the CNRP gained 449 out of a total of 1646 commune chief seats. And the CPP lost 1779 commune councillor seats while the CNRP gained 2052 out of a total of 11,572 councillor seats.

After the commune elections, Hun Sen and the CPP blamed their poor showing on outside interference by the US National Democratic Institution (NDI) and Khmer language broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA). The NDI was ordered to leave Cambodia and the 53 local radio stations that rebroadcast news from VOA and RFA were shut down. The Cambodian Daily was closed on allegations of tax fraud. In September, former leader of the opposition Kem Sokha, the founder and former leader of the Human Rights Party, was charged with treason.

Hun Sen is an autocrat who is clinging to power. To ensure that he remains at the helm he has resorted to subversion of the national constitution. In the process, he is transforming Cambodia’s liberal multi-party democracy into a dictatorship, a democracy in name only.

Carlyle A Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

This article was originally posted here on Asian Currents.

 

Cambodia in 2017 –Stronger on the Global Stage


October 24, 2017

Cambodia in 2017 –Stronger on the Global Stage

http://www.gmipost.com/special-feature/53/cambodia-2017.html

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The portion in front of the palace was used for watching boat races during the Water Festival. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia is located in this district. The quay is a 3km strip filled with vendors, locals, tourists and are lined with hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and shops.–Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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Statue of His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh

Having shed its image as a strife-ridden country, the Kingdom of Cambodia has made great strides in building a bright, sustainable future for its people. Made up of a population of 15 million, half of which are under 25 years old, Cambodia’s demographics present the perfect condition to speed up economic growth.

Growing at an average of seven percent during the last two decades, Cambodia already boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Analysts remain optimistic about the country’s ability to sustain its growth, particularly in tourism, garment manufacturing, construction and property development.

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Prime Minister HE Samdech Techo Hun Sen played host to The World Economic Forum on ASEAN, May 10-12, 2017

Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose ruling party secured a fresh mandate in elections earlier this year, has continued to enact measures aimed at boosting Cambodia’s economic competitiveness within ASEAN and the rest of the world.

In May, Cambodia hosted the 26th World Economic Forum on ASEAN. With the theme “Youth, Technology and Growth: Securing ASEAN’s Digital and Demographic Dividends”, the WEF event, held in the bustling capital Phnom Pehn, was attended by more than 700 leaders from business, government, academe and civil society from around the world.

The event, according to the Cambodian government, was “an opportunity to raise Cambodia’s international profile and enhance its national prestige” and “contribute to the promotion of investment opportunities and tourists to the Kingdom”.

Justin Wood, the head of the World Economic Forum Pacific Region, praised Cambodia for boosting economic growth and reducing poverty in the country.

“There is a different story to be told about Cambodia. We want the world to understand a bit more about what is happening in Cambodia,” Wood said.

Setting the Foundations

As Cambodia pursues its growth strategy, the government recognizes that it needs to attract more investment in various vital sectors, particularly in infrastructure and education. At the heart of this plan is Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chantol, who was also Minister of Commerce.

“The government recognizes the critical importance of a healthy, efficient and cost-effective national infrastructure to expedite trade and lower transportation costs overall. Trade moves through different modes of transport, by sea, rivers, by airfreight, rail and road, and the respective networks continue to be rehabilitated, built and expanded,” Chantol explained.

In line with the WEF forum’s theme, Cambodia has stepped up efforts to make its graduates more competitive in the global market.

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The University of Cambodia, one of the kingdom’s largest private universities, is a key contributor to this renaissance in education.

Founded in 2003 by Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, UC can accommodate 10,000 students and stands as a leader in business and entrepreneurship education. In 2017, the university named its business school after AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes, arguably the best-known Southeast Asian entrepreneur.

 

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In a ranking of business schools last year, the University of Cambodia was cited for possessing a “strong regional influence.”

“As we continue to build the capabilities and reach of this university, we are actively looking to forge partnerships internationally because exchanges are critical to our growth,” Dr. Kao stressed.

Cambodia– Responding to Rising Voter Expectations


October 16, 2017

Cambodia– Responding to Rising  Voter Expectations 

by Kongkea Chhoeun, Australian National University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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As long as the Cambodian government manages to maintain satisfactory economic performance, continues its piecemeal reforms benefitting the majority of the population, and promotes some appearance of democracy in the country, it will continue to demand difficult value judgments on the part of Cambodian citizens as to whether the CPP’s actions against the media and civil society are worth fighting back against.– Kongkea Chhoeun

 

It might be easy to forget given the events of August–September 2017, but Cambodian democracy had until a few years ago been making progress. Many key indicators of democratic quality had continued to improve since the 1998 national elections, which followed the near collapse of the system in the aftermath of the July 1997 internal fighting between armed forces loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Rannariddh.

 

Competition among political parties increased, thanks to the unification of the opposition parties in 2012 ahead of the 2013 national election. The economy also continued to grow extraordinarily well. Growth has averaged 7 per cent per year since 1993, and poverty has fallen more than 1 per cent per year on average since 2003. Inequality has also declined. Vertical political accountability has been strengthened markedly, thanks to decentralisation and deconcentration. Cambodians are increasingly able to hold local leaders to account through local democratic processes.

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Sanderson Park, at Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh  has a sculpture of a dove with an olive branch in its beak. It is made up entirely from parts of AK-47 rifles.

But the 2013 polls were a turning point. Although they won the election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost the popular vote for the first time since 1998, seeing its popular vote plummet by more than 20 per cent. To its credit, the CPP-led government subsequently implemented various reforms aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Cambodian voters. The CPP has permitted moderate reforms, restructured the National Electoral Committee and increased public servants pay. And in August 2017, Hun Sen also promised a slew of new benefits for garment workers, including a big increase in their monthly minimum wage.

But with the carrots have come sticks.Indicators of horizontal accountability have either stalled or are in decline. Local and international NGOs and media operated with comparatively little constraint from the state before the 2013 national election period. Since then, the government has made disturbing moves that wipe out progress made in terms of political openness. Among a range of actions is the passage of legislation governing NGOs.

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Despite a boycott by the opposition, the Parliament passed the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations, which requires the nearly 5000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and being shut down. In August 2017, the government used this law to order the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to shut down its operations and repatriate its foreign staff, accusing the NDI of illegally operating in the country.

The Cambodian government has also targeted foreign and foreign-linked media. In August 2017, the government accused the Cambodia Daily of failing to pay more than US$6 million in taxes, giving the paper one month to resolve the issue or risk being shut down. The Daily is a US-owned outlet credited for its reports critical of the government. In addition, the government instructed more than a dozen radio stations across the country to cease operations, accusing them of failing to report how much and to whom they sell their airtime.

Two major factors — one internal and one external — may explain the government’s recent measures against international NGOs and media. Internally, these measures were escalated as a result of the June 2017 local government elections, the result of which represented a big boost for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and a serious blow to the CPP. After the June 2017 local government elections, the CPP still controlled the majority of local governments — 1156 or 70 per cent of communes. But the opposition party’s share of local governments increased about 12 fold in comparison with the last local elections held in 2012.

The external factor is the declining role of the United States as a champion of democracy. The drastic moves targeting US-based NGOs and media occurred in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. His election and subsequent attacks on mainstream media have disconcerted democrats at home and abroad and certainly delegitimised US efforts to promote liberal democratic principles internationally.

Furthermore, the failure of the United States to pre-empt and manage democratic breakdown in Thailand, and to promote democracy in Laos and Vietnam, only serves to diminish the US role in promoting democracy in Cambodia, and potentially gives the Cambodian government an excuse to maintain the status quo.

Likewise, Australia and European countries have been silent on these issues so far, showing a similar unwillingness to influence internal political decisions in Cambodia. The 2014 Australia–Cambodia refugee deal tainted Australia’s reputation as an altruistic donor to Cambodia, and has certainly undermined Australian leverage in promoting reforms in Cambodian domestic affairs. And European countries have been busy cleaning up the mess in their own backyard after the Brexit vote in 2016 and the rise of populist movements across the continent.

Meanwhile, Cambodia is increasingly dependent on China, and less and less so on Western countries. China is feeding the Cambodian economy, investing US$857 million (roughly 61 per cent of total FDI) and channelling US$320 million in aid (roughly 30 per cent of total aid) to the country in 2015. By contrast, investment and aid from Western countries is either modest or on the decline.

Whatever the mix of domestic and global political influences, the consequences of the CPP’s crackdown on Cambodia’s democracy are being felt. As long as the Cambodian government manages to maintain satisfactory economic performance, continues its piecemeal reforms benefitting the majority of the population, and promotes some appearance of democracy in the country, it will continue to demand difficult value judgments on the part of Cambodian citizens as to whether the CPP’s actions against the media and civil society are worth fighting back against.

Kongkea Chhoeun is a PhD Candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

This article was first published here on New Mandala.

 

Why Cambodia is turning its back on the West


September 10, 2017

Why Cambodia is turning its back on the West

opinion September 10, 2017 01:00

By Shaun Turton, Mech Dara
The Phnom Penh Post
Asia News Network

With China throwing its support behind premier Hun Sen, both are protecting each other’s interests

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Their Forebears were abandoned by the United States and its allies; The United States bombed the Cambodian countryside, as Nixon and Kissinger expanded the war, and in the name of democracy and human rights brought tragedy and hardship to the Cambodian people. When it suited American interests, US administrations from Kennedy to Obama (and Trump too) have not hesitated to let history repeat itself.

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His Excellency  Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia

Cambodians under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen have learned well; they are naturally cautious and circumspect; and  they are  now seeking new friends and strategic partners who respect Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in their effort to build national resilience through sustainable development. The country has enjoyed peace, stability and strong economic growth for more than 2 decades and the way forward for the Cambodian people, in my view, is promising.

The Asian Development Bank has called Cambodia an “emerging tiger economy”.  From a Miracle by the Mekong, the Kingdom is a key member of ASEAN and a proud nation ready to take its place in the community of nations. As a witness to its progress for more than 25 years, I am very bullish.–Din Merican

By Shaun Turton, Mech Dara
The Phnom Penh Post
Asia News Network

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The Cambodian National Flag with the The Independence Monument in the Background, Phnom Penh

Its president imprisoned on a charge of treason and its existence under threat, the Cambodia National Rescue Party last week renewed its calls for the international community to step in and stop what’s widely seen as an all out assault on the Kingdom’s democracy.

But with China throwing its support behind the premier Hun Sen, the West’s statements of condemnation and concern, which have flooded in from embassies, NGOs and the United Nations in recent days, will have little impact, particularly in the absence of concrete measures, analysts said.

Building on a statement of support from China’s Foreign Ministry, senior Chinese diplomat Wang Jiarui met on Thursday with National Assembly President Heng Samrin to offer private assurances amid the mounting criticism, according to Samrin’s spokesman Sorn Sarana.

Jiarui, the former head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international liaison department and current vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), reaffirmed Beijing’s support following the late-night arrest of CNRP President Kem Sokha, Sarana said. He said the official, whose committee is described as a non-state organ that advises on state affairs, expressed the sentiment that “an obstacle for Cambodia is also an obstacle for China”.

“China is behind Cambodia to help and support,” he said, relating the discussion. “The success of Cambodia is also the success of China.”

 A representative from the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to messages to verify Sarana’s characterisation of the discussion, but for analysts, China’s backing was hardly surprising given Hun Sen’s long drift into Beijing’s orbit.

 

Backed by more than $1 billion (Bt33 billion) in foreign direct investment and $265 million in overseas development aid, according to 2016 figures, Chinese support insulates the premier from external pressure, at least to a certain extent, analysts said.

Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said China had previously shown its willingness to supply military equipment and plug holes left by the withdrawal of Western aid. Cambodia, meanwhile, has repeatedly backed China’s position on the contested South China Sea.

“China will pick up the pieces if the US or other donor countries resort to sanctions or other punitive actions against Cambodia,” Thayer said, adding that nonetheless, the support was not a carte blanche endorsement of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades.

“The message was subtle but clear. China will support Hun Sen under these conditions, but if Hun Sen cannot protect Chinese interests they will support a CPP leader who can.”

The premier himself has shown no signs he’s willing to cede power should his ruling Cambodian People’s Power lose next year’s election, announcing on Wednesday that he planned to rule for 10 more years.

Eleven months out from the crucial national ballot, the government has pursued what’s widely seen as a relentless crackdown against the opposition, independent media and civil society, culminating this week with the arrest of Sokha, who faces up to 30 years in prison on a “treason” charge for what officials say is a US-backed plot to topple the government.

A well-connected observer familiar with thinking inside the CPP said the government’s virulent anti-Americanism reflected a belief that the US and US-backed organisations were supporting the CNRP, as well as frustration over Washington’s reluctance to forgive war-era debt. Nevertheless, the observer, who requested anonymity because of the tense political environment, said the escalation against the US was a gamble.

He described anxiety in the CPP about the US’s recent announcement of visa restrictions for Cambodians, which came in response to Cambodia’s refusal to accept deportees as part of a controversial US programme to sends home long-term non-native residents who are convicted of a felony.

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Phnom Penh in the Land of Temples, Smiling People, and Wonder

The possibility of trade restrictions also worried many in the party, he said. The scrapping the EU’s “anything but arms” preferential trade arrangement, or the US’s zero tariffs for travel wares could have “devastating” economic consequences given European and American markets are vital to Cambodia’s almost $7 billion garment export sector. With the minimum wage rise in Cambodia making other countries in the region more appealing to manufacturers, lead ASEAN analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit Miguel Chanco said such moves would be a stronger tool than aid cuts, which have long been threatened but without much impact.

However, in light of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the Myanmar military’s crackdown against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine state – and considering the political upheaval in the US and EU – discussions of such actions were “unlikely” to feature high on the agenda, he said.

Simply put, the EU and the US have bigger domestic fish to fry. The former is dealing with the complexity of Brexit, while the latter is busy dithering on Donald Trump’s controversial domestic agenda,” Chanco said.

According to a government database, China last year provided about 30 per cent of Cambodia’s $1 billion overseas development aid budget, followed by Japan, which contributed 10 per cent, and is also second only to China for foreign direct investment.

Following Sokha’s arrest, the Japanese Embassy released a cautious statement calling on the ruling and opposition parties to “make efforts to create a suitable environment to realise a free and fair” election.

Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson urged Japan not to “soft-pedal”, and to use its central role at the UN Human Rights Council to take a strong position against threats to the legitimacy of next year’s election, noting Tokyo was a major supporter of preparations for the upcoming ballot and had led the UNTAC mission that staged Cambodia’s 1993 vote.

“I would take five statements of concern, and if I got something from Japan that was somewhat terse and tight and strong, I would match those up against the others,” Robertson said, noting Japan’s preference for closed-door diplomacy.

“Japanese critical statements are sort of like unicorns; you get a critical Japanese statement, it’s like, ‘Did I just see a magical creature?’”

A small glimpse of Japan’s behind-the-scenes courting of Cambodia emerged last month, when Hun Sen posted a video of a surprise birthday party organised in Tokyo by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, complete with a personal rendition of “Happy Birthday” and a new set of golf clubs.

Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asia expert at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said Japan’s “jousting” with rival China would likely temper the strength of any public response, and the potential of punitive action.

“If Japan were to walk away from Cambodia, Tokyo would provide a vacuum which Beijing would only be too willing to fill,” Chambers said.

Noting Toyko had “little appetite for confrontation”, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles Ear Sophal said he saw little hope for anything “dramatic and coordinated” from the international community.

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A new Chinese-built bridge, on the right, spans the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, running parallel to the bridge Japan helped construct in the 1960s.–Putting Words into Deeds is what counts.

“The last time anything serious happened in terms of aid suspension [1997], 100-200 people died,” he said, referring to the violent factional fighting in which Hun Sen ousted his royalist rivals from a coalition government.

“And, indeed,” he added, “China has already made a statement endorsing Cambodia’s actions.”