Nhek Bun Chhay, left, pictured with Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2013. The leader of the Khmer National United Party was this week granted bail and is expected to return to the helm of his party.Heng Chivoan
As the master angler of Cambodia’s admittedly small political pond, Prime Minister Hun Sen is the king of catch and release. Such appears to be the case with Nhek Bun Chhay – once a formidable military commander in the 1990s with a loyal following, and now a leader of the splinter royalist political party, the Khmer National United Party.
Bun Chhay was released on bail late Monday night – a rare occurrence in Cambodia, where pre-trial detention is the norm rather than a last resort, resulting in prisons across the country being crammed to three times their capacity. The release is one minor concession in the wake of widespread repression – a small mercy that projects the image that Cambodia’s political crackdown is not as absolute as the situation on the ground suggests.
Indeed, past events show there’s a long history to the Premier’s cycle of repression and release. Meanwhile, analysts say, in a tense election that badly needs the appearance of competition following the dissolution of the main opposition, a small fish in the Cambodian political pond like Bun Chhay could be more valuable swimming free.
“From a distance, it seems consistent with Hun Sen’s M.O.: tighten the screws, and then release the pressure at a strategic juncture to secure maximum political benefits,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
Perhaps the clearest example of the tried-and-true tactic ‘is when the Premier permitted then-opposition leader Sam Rainsy – who had been forced into self-imposed exile – to return to the country just days ahead of the 2013 national elections. The move saw an unprecedented groundswell of support for Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party, which rattled the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. However, the technique stretches back decades.
In 1997, Hun Sen overthrew his then co-Prime Minister and Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a bout of bloody factional fighting, forcing the Prince into exile only to coax him back to compete in the next year’s elections – an episode from which neither Ranariddh, nor his party, ever recovered.
More recent examples include the hounding of opposition leader Kem Sokha, Rainsy’s successor, in relation to an alleged prostitution case, resulting in months of de facto house arrest at his party’s headquarters, only for him to receive a reprieve six months out from last year’s commune elections.
Shortly after those elections came a month of swift arrests. First was Bun Chhay on August 4, ostensibly in relation to decade-old drug charges, though the arrest came hot on the heels of a leaked phone call in which Bun Chhay appeared to strike a deal with the CNRP – by far the nation’s largest opposition party at the time, and the only one to pose a legitimate challenge to the CPP.
Second was the arrest and snap trial of Sourn Serey Ratha, head of the tiny Khmer Power Party, over a Facebook post criticising the government’s recent military stand-off with Laos.
But most significantly, after making unprecedented gains at the commune level, Sokha was arrested on September 3 on allegations of “treason” and the CNRP was forcibly dissolved in November, with its elected positions redistributed to fringe parties – including the KNUP.
While the ruling party may have cleared away its only viable competitor, it also provoked an international uproar. Since the dissolution, the US and EU have withdrawn funding for this year’s elections, which observers have contended cannot be considered legitimate without the CNRP’s participation. With a chorus of critics decrying what they characterise as a slide into one-party rule, the ruling party has feverishly sought to maintain an appearance of multi-party democracy, albeit to little apparent effect.
Former Khmer Power Party President Sourn Serey Ratha, seen in handcuffs, gets out of a police vehicle following his arrest in early August of 2017 in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied
Last week, the EU publicly acknowledged that it would be taking the extraordinary step of sending a team to review its General Scheme of Preferences with Cambodia – raising questions about the future of tariff-free access to one Cambodia’s largest trading partners. The pressure was reaching a head.
Days later, Nhek Bun Chhay walked out of jail.
“While it would seem that the [Cambodian People’s Party] has the upcoming election neatly sewed up, perhaps Hun Sen views him as a figure who can help diversify the electoral field just enough to gain some international credibility, while remaining too marginal to pose any real threat to the CPP’s power,” Strangio said.
“I suspect [Bun Chhay] is being readied, like the recent trickle of new parties, as a Potemkin alternative to the CPP,” Strangio said.
Political scientist Astrid Noren-Nilsson, however, said she doubted Bun Chhay “has any desire to be a political counterweight to the ruling party in the upcoming elections”.
The release of political rivals, such as the pardon for Sam Rainsy immediately before the 2013 elections, nonetheless “helps sustain the facade of elections, but does not leave these leaders enough time to organise and compete”, according to Lee Morgenbesser, author of Behind the Façade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.
But on this score, Morgenbesser said, Hun Sen’s repression and reprieves make him the exception rather than the norm among other dictators, who often keep their opponents behind bars with no hope of release. Such concessions, he added, likely hinge on the “magnitude of the threat the opposition leader poses”.
It also feeds into the “main strategy” ahead of the elections: namely, “the need for as many minor opposition parties to compete as possible, while the major opposition party (the CNRP) remains outlawed”.
“To the uninformed observer, this will create the impression of healthy competition existing in Cambodia,” Morgenbesser said.
The KNUP is the only party other than the CPP to hold a commune chief position following the reallocation of the dissolved CNRP’s seats. That the KNUP candidate, formerly of Funcinpec, took the Banteay Meanchey slot is a testament to Bun Chhay’s popularity potentially rivalling that of the legacy royalist party he once helped to lead.
While the KNUP could potentially siphon off some disaffected former CNRP voters, it and Funcinpec – given their overlapping history and membership – will likely still be fighting over the same relatively small group of royalist voters. Now, with the CNRP gone – and the possibility of it cooperating with the KNUP neutralised – the KNUP will return to its status as a nonthreatening contender with a modest, albeit geographically limited, following.
The dissolution of the main opposition, Morgenbesser said, “will help splinter CNRP supporters, who give their votes (if they vote) to an assortment of peripheral parties”. The resulting illusion of competition, he continued, will be marketed internationally as “electoral integrity and foolishly bought by the likes of China, Japan and, possibly, Australia”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen–Tough with his rivals but compassionate and popular with his people
Political analyst Ou Virak also thought the move was part of a “grand plan” centred on the mere appearance of a free and fair election. “The illusion of choice would be sufficient, as long as people believe it enough to go out and vote,” Virak said. “Voter turnouts would be the most interesting thing to watch since the outcome is pretty much determined.”
Historically the government has held convictions – or the spectre thereof – over their political rivals as a sword of Damocles, effectively neutering their political effectiveness. It’s a position Bun Chhay – who is out on bail, not pardoned – now finds himself in. Though as Virak points out, whether there’s an existing legal case against a politician is a moot point, as the “threat of prison is hanging over most” political actors regardless.
Politics in Cambodia, he said, is “risky business”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Third Summit of the Mekong River Commission in Siem Reap on April 5, 2018. Facebook
The Prime Ministers of the low-lying countries through which the Mekong River runs – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – have been meeting this week to attempt to reach agreement on strategies to address major challenges and opportunities facing the river’s huge basin, now and into the future, overshadowed by China, which clearly intends to exert greater influence over the river and its riparians, according to critics.
It is questionable whether any of the four, who began the meeting on April 4, demonstrate any real commitment to health of the river, which is vital to the wellbeing of 60 million people whose ancestors have for centuries relied on it for their livelihoods as well as for transport, water for cooking, irrigation, cleaning, and sanitation.
Over the past two decades, most of the four countries’ leaders have instead demonstrated a willingness to build more dams on the river because population pressures and the burgeoning thirst for additional hydropower across Southeast Asia. There is little doubt that the character of the river, Southeast Asia’s largest, is under intense stress.
The main aim of this week’s meeting, at Siem Reap in Cambodia, is a discussion of the Mekong River Council Study, a massive 3,600-page attempt to assess the impacts of mainstream hydro projects begun in 2011. The analysis includes hydropower, irrigation, agriculture and land use, transportation, domestic and industrial water use, flood protection and includes climate change. It is described as an “an integrated, cross-sectoral, comprehensive and state-of-the-art study supporting sustainable development in the Mekong Basin.”
Unfortunately, the study findings conclude that the series of 11 large hydropower dams on the lower mainstream of the river and the 120 tributary dams planned by 2040 pose a serious threat to the ecological health and economic vitality of the region.
“Major detrimental impacts resulting from current hydropower plans will in turn produce massive trade-offs between water, energy and food,”according to International Rivers, a Berkeley, Calif-based NGO dedicated to protection and preservation of the world’s rivers, which has dealt exhaustively with the council study. “Predicted impacts include, by 2040; a 30-40 percent decrease in Mekong fisheries — a loss of about 1 million tonnes per year and a staggering 97 percent reduction in the sediment load reaching the Mekong Delta. These impacts are expected to result in a drastic reduction in food security and agricultural productivity, alongside increased poverty levels and heightened climate vulnerability in much of the Lower Mekong Basin.”
Not only are fish populations expected to fall, the study suggests that there will be drastic changes in fish species with migratory “white fish” species predicted to disappear entirely from Thailand and Laos and being pushed to the brink in Cambodia. Invasive species are expected to take their place, putting pressure on ecosystems.
To date, decisions on hydropower projects have been made by member country governments on a project-by-project basis, without regard to basin-wide impacts. The lower Mekong governments meeting at Siem Reap “must now ensure that the findings of the Council Study meaningfully inform decisions on future projects,” according to International Rivers.
The 3rd Mekong River Commission (MRC) Leaders Summit in Siem Reap hosted by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen.
Certainly, the stakes on the river have increased. The unsettling tendency of the Chinese government to throw its weight around in the lower Mekong basin as well as its frenetic dam-building in the upper reaches, in addition to development on the mainstream of the lower delta are of rising concern. Climate change is becoming an issue as is private funding, particularly by Thai interests, of dams in Laos.
“Beijing has continued to support those countries that are determined to develop dams on the river at any cost,” according to Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Program for Future Directions International, an Australian research institute. “China provides funds, materials and labor for dam construction in Laos and Cambodia. While both countries see hydroelectric dams as an integral component of their economic development, Laos plans to graduate from least-developed country status mainly by exporting surplus hydroelectricity to its neighbours. China has been willing to help fund those ambitions, as it believes that it will help to further its interests across greater South-East Asia.”
One major issue is the so-called “run-of-river” concept, generally applied to hydropower projects that have only a small reservoir or no reservoir for storing water in contrast to mega-dams that store vast amounts of water and cost billions of dollars to build. The idea is to create sustainable hydro energy while minimizing the impact on the surrounding environment and nearby communities.
The “ROR” dams are theoretically able to harness the energy potential efficiently and without a major environmental impact. Without large reservoirs, they eliminate methane and carbon dioxide emissions caused by the decomposition of organic matter in conventional reservoirs.
Proponents argue that because proposed Mekong dams have limited storage capacity, the hydrological impacts will be minimal, as they allow a ‘natural’ flow of water through the dam, thus aiding the movement downstream of sediment and allowing for the migration of fish .
But, according to International Rivers, “focusing on the overall amount of water passing through a dam does not take into account impacts on flow patterns, including increased water levels during dry season and decreased levels during wet season. The ways in which dams alter seasonal flow patterns has severe adverse implications for downstream ecosystems and agricultural systems that are built around the seasonal flood pulse.”
ROR dams can have equally harmful impacts as conventional facilities, International Rivers says, “particularly on ecosystems and communities downstream. Some of these impacts are inherent; others depend on how a dam is operated. Unfortunately, the impacts of ROR dams tend to be overlooked and understudied, an oversight in part due to the assumption that ROR are less destructive than traditional dams.”
The NGO has published a fact sheet entitled ‘Swindling the Mekong: Run-of-River Hydro’ seeking to address what it calls some of the misconceptions that surround ROR dams, and examines specific case studies in the Mekong Basin.
Ben Sokhean, Quinn Libson and Political Analyst Meas Nee would be well advised to read Astrid Noren-Nilsson’s Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination and Democracy for a proper understanding of H.E.Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen’s political philosophy, his trials and tribulations, his achievements since he took control of the country in 1998, and Cambodia’s contested history since Independence in 1953. Samdech Techo Hun Sen puts democracy building in an explicitly developmental context. For the Cambodian Premier, it is peace, stability and development first. –Din Merican
In a boast reminiscent of US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Hun Sen went on a tangent on Wednesday before thousands of garment workers in Por Sen Chey district extolling his negotiating prowess, calling himself one of the top negotiators in the “history of world leaders”, while reiterating that he would not actually be engaging in any such negotiations with the opposition.
The premier emphasised the role he played in negotiating with former members of the Khmer Rouge, saying “Hun Sen’s presence [at negotiations] helped to solve the problems with the soldiers”. He also posited that the job of negotiator, in some ways, is even harder than the role of a soldier on a battlefield, explaining that in battle, the lower-ranked soldiers are the ones in the line of fire, while in negotiation, it’s the high-ranking combatants – like Hun Sen – who are the ones who see the action.
“There is no one using negotiation opportunities better than me in the history of world leaders,” the prime minister told the workers, adding that he had also been carrying out negotiations for longer than any other current leaders.
Political analyst Meas Nee, however, challenged the validity of Hun Sen’s boasts, saying such talks should not just result in a “winner and loser”.
“The negotiator is a person who enables the involved parties to work with one another and solve the problem,” Nee said. “If we look at the current political crisis in Cambodia, if the leader is good, the political crisis would not be stuck in the deadlock it is today, and I think that it would be solved already.”
Despite Hun Sen’s claim that his negotiation skills rival all others, the premier is maintaining his position that he will not entertain the possibility of talks with former members of the forcibly dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, which had previously been the only legitimate challenger to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party in this July’s national elections. On Monday, Hun Sen insisted that there would be no pardons for jailed opposition figures or talks with the CNRP.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan pinned the blame for the lack of compromise on former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, maintaining that Hun Sen is trying to “build a culture of dialogue” with the result that “all Cambodian people are happy and welcome”. Rainsy has been out of the country since 2015, fleeing a host of politically tinged convictions against him, including some in cases levelled by the premier himself.
“The convict Sam Rainsy is the one trying to destroy the culture of dialogue until it’s dead,” Eysan said.
Responding to Wednesday’s speech, Rainsy had a message for the Premier: “[B]eing really effective in negotiations aimed at peacefully resolving national issues requires at least two fundamental skills: intelligence, which he seems to demonstrate, and courage, which he has yet to show.”
“Hun Sen seems to be only guided by fear in his continuous refusal to engage in any negotiation with the CNRP, the only credible opposition party.”
This article previously said Prime Minister Hun Sen’s speech was given on Tuesday March 27. In fact it was given on Wednesday March 28. This has been amended.
In his opening remarks at a recent conference on Cambodia at the Australian National University, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans mentioned two significant events. First was the cowardly but deadly grenade attack on a Khmer Nation Party (KNP) rally in March 1997, the second the bloody coup staged by Hun Sen in July that year. Prof Evans went on to say that “neither episode generated much international reaction”.
Professor Gareth Evans
I would like to respond here by saying that nothing could be further from the truth. Both events were met with international outrage and condemnation. Reactions by some powerful international actors engaged with Cambodia at the time had profound and far reaching consequences for the evolution and consolidation of Hun Sen’s power. What we see today in Cambodia is a direct outcome of the events of that fateful year.
Before examining international reactions in more detail, it is important for the reader to know that the events in question were inextricably linked to preparations for local, or commune, elections in 1997 and parliamentary elections in 1998. Equally important is the fact that the Royal Cambodian Government (RGC), formed after the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) mission, could not organise constitutionally required elections without international financial and technical assistance.
As will become apparent, the 1980s impasse over who organises elections in Cambodia, which finally resulted in the 1989 Australian peace proposal and UNTAC, had not gone away after the 1993 polls. Rather, the battle lines were redrawn within the newly created power-sharing government. Only one of the co-prime ministers emerging from the 1993 elections would emerge victorious after the 1998 polls.
Senior CPP leaders, like Co-Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng, were quick off the mark in preparing the ground for elections as early as late 1995. Around the same time, some of the not-so-feckless leaders of FUNCINPEC, notably Prince Norodom Sirivudh, were pushing their leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, for a greater share of power in rural areas, especially at the district level.
Elections in Cambodia are won or lost in rural areas. In a dramatic show of government force on the streets of Phnom Penh, Prince Sirivudh was arrested and detained for involvement in an alleged plot to kill Co-Premier Hun Sen. The year before, FUNCINPEC Finance Minister Sam Rainsy—a vocal and harsh critic of the developing corrupt relationship between the co-prime minsters—was removed from his position in the party and eventually from the National Assembly. He would go on to become what some international observers, and many Cambodian voters, saw as the only hope for electoral politics in Cambodia.
I ask for readers forbearance if the details seem onerous, but this is necessary background for understanding the immediate re-engagement of international actors in Cambodian domestic politics after UNTAC’s departure. In point of fact, because of fears of continued serious human rights abuses experienced in the run up to the 1993 elections, the first United Nations Centre for Human Rights field office was opened in Phnom Penh at the end of 1993. Justice Michael Kirby of Australia was appointed as the first Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia (SRSG).
Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen met Mr. Benny Widyono, former UN Secretary General’s Representative to Cambodia. On the occasion, Mr. Benny Widyono handed over copies of his book “Witness of Cambodian History” to Samdech Techo Hun Sen.Photo: Chey Phum Pul
In 1994, Benny Widyono, an Indonesian/American national and former UN de facto Governor of Cambodia’s Siem Reap Province during the UNTAC operation, was appointed as the first UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Political Affairs in Cambodia. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which had a long prior history of involvement in the country, formally opened offices in Phnom Penh in 1994. These individuals and offices would play leading roles in the drama that unfolded. Alongside these, we begin to witness a massive influx of international governmental and non-governmental developmental organisations setting up shop around the country. A veritable “aid industry” began to establish itself.
But what does all this have to do with international reaction to the events of 1997 and what we see in Cambodia today? Well, this was the national and international political and socio-economic milieu within which both co-minsters of the interior, Sar Kheng (CPP) and You Hockry (FUNCINPEC), formally requested international financial and technical assistance for two elections, local and national, in 1996.
The new RGC was of course obligated to follow the new 1993 constitution, which called for periodic multiparty democratic elections, if it was to continue to receive international recognition and associated benefits. This was hugely problematic for the CPP leadership because, despite their best efforts under the noses of foreigners, they had in 1993 come second to FUNCINPEC by a notable margin despite resorting to violence, intimidation, coercion and fear to secure votes.
It was hugely problematic for FUNCINPEC, the actual winners of the 1993 elections, because the façade of 50–50 power sharing meant they struggled to capitalise on the clear support they had among voters against an entrenched incumbent administration. Hun Sen’s actions in 1997 were also hugely problematic for the international diplomatic community, because they effectively derailed the democratic train set in motion by the Paris Peace Accords and UNTAC.
The UN accepted the formal request for electoral assistance sent in 1996. It had to, because of the peace accords and UNTAC. The UN had no real teeth before UNTAC. The Cambodia adventure had had the potential to transform how international relations could be conducted for good, post-Cold War.
Let me fast forward. UN and foreign involvement in Cambodian elections post-UNTAC was as divisive as ever, if not more so. Prince Ranariddh and his supporters wanted the UN to verify the elections process from start to finish. Why wouldn’t they? Ranariddh’s party had won because UNTAC had lifted the lid on CPP control enough for a returning royalist party to win the votes they did. Indeed, one of the major successes of UNTAC was the work of the information education component. Staffed by foreigners—many of whom could speak Khmer; people who were familiar with Cambodian history, culture and society—did a remarkable job of providing neutral information amidst the propaganda of the contesting parties, including the Khmer Rouge.
The UN accepted the formal request for electoral assistance sent by the Co-Minsters of the Interior, subject to the outcome of needs assessment missions. To cut a long story short, Francesc (no, his first name is not spelt incorrectly) Vendrell conducted such missions and concluded that local or commune elections would result in a “bloodbath”. He spoke with all key players including Hun Sen, who reportedly told him in a rant that the UNTAC elections were, crudely paraphrasing, the “worst in Cambodia’s history and the worst in the world”.
In his report back to UN headquarters, Vendrell said it was clear what Hun Sen was up to. Without going into the details of the report—a copy of which is in this author’s possession—he clearly expressed his view that Hun Sen was resolutely and as far as possible out to destroy any opposition to him and his party by any means. That was in 1996. Timing is important. Hun Sen was bitter. The peace accords’ signatories needed to keep the successes of UNTAC on track.
As a result of Vendrells’ 1996 mission findings, and perhaps for other technical reasons, the 1997 local elections were postponed. Nonetheless, hand grenades were thrown into the Khmer Nation Party (KNP) rally led by Sam Rainsy in March 1997. There was a bloodbath. Why? Because the KNP and Sam Rainsy, together with FUNCINPEC, were a credible and serious electoral threat to an electorally unpopular CPP. The bloodbath continued during and after Hun Sen’s coup in July. If that wasn’t bad enough, here is the international relations kicker: the much vaunted and celebrated Paris Peace Accords, and the achievements of the unprecedented UNTAC operation, would be dead in the water if international signatories simply rolled over and accepted the outcome of Hun Sen’s military action. And yet foreign diplomats stationed in Phnom Penh at the time were happy that finally the deadlock between the two Prime Ministers appeared to be over.
Preparations for the elections—which effectively meant building everything again from virtually nothing—had stalled because of a deterioration in relations between the two Co-prime Ministers. But relations had deteriorated because of what was at stake in the elections they were supposed to be preparing for. Immediately after Hun Sen’s coup, the Cambodian/Australian national Ung Huot was put forward by Hun Sen as the unelected FUNCINPEC replacement for the elected Co-Prime Minister Ranariddh. This was done in the hope that normalcy could be restored and the government could get on with preparations for elections—which they did, with international support, but without the elected Co-Prime Minster and other credible opposition to the CPP. Sound familiar?
It was an obvious farce.
Now, back to international reactions to the events of 1997. An American citizen, Rob Abney, was injured in the March 1997 grenade attack on the KNP rally. Apparently, Abney was at the time working for the USAID-funded International Republican Institute (IRI). As a consequence, the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) dispatched a team to Cambodia to find out what happened. This was all reported in the media at the time; you may go onto the internet and do a cursory search for details. The upshot was that the FBI findings leaked into the mainstream. The Washington Post reported that the FBI report “tentatively” pointed the finger of responsibility at members of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard. Conspiracy theories still hold sway as no-one has been brought to justice for the attack. Occam’s razor calls for the more parsimonious explanation.
Four months later, the country was thrown back into further chaos with Hun Sen’s military action at the beginning of July. Or had it? Had Hun Sen carefully anticipated and managed international reaction to his military action? Just how important were elections in 1998 in the context of the Paris Peace Accords and UNTAC to those international players involved in their creation?
Yes, the Khmer Rouge problem and possible war crimes tribunals were significant factors. These were even more significant in the context of the scheduled elections. Remember, whomever controls the state apparatus can control the outcome of the elections. Had Hun Sen wrested enough control back after his defeat in 1993 to ensure an outright victory in 1998? Contrary to Prof. Evans’ comments at the ANU conference, international reactions were both swift and far-reaching. Non-humanitarian aid was suspended by the US and Germany, Cambodia’s seat at the UN was left vacant, and the country’s imminent entry into ASEAN was put on hold.
Back to preparations for elections. For those donors in Phnom Penh fatigued by Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen’s shenanigans, the outcome of the coup brought temporary relief. Ranariddh, fearing arrest, fled Cambodia hours before the fighting began. Other leaders of the opposition followed soon after. With Ranariddh’s “replacement” in situ, election preparations under the auspices of the UNDP could continue. In the best of times, at least nine months is needed to prepare for elections. The RGC along with international partners had less than a year to put everything in place, including the stalled legislative framework, a National Election Commission (NEC), and a Constitutional Council—not to mention the plethora of technical and logistical arrangements related to voter lists and registration, among other things.
But could legitimate elections really take place without Ranariddh and other leaders of the opposition? Apparently not. After the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on UNTAC, it was ultimately decided by the international powers that be, in the shape of “the friends of Cambodia” group, that Ranariddh and others must return safely to compete in the elections, under the conditions of a controversial proposal put forward by the Japanese known as the “four pillars” plan or initiative.
There isn’t the space here to go into all of the details. The information is readily available for those who are interested. Suffice it to say, I believe Hun Sen carefully calculated the international response to the coup. He knew he couldn’t get away with no international involvement in the elections. It is interesting to note that the restoration of Cambodia’s seat at the UN, resumption of aid, and entry into ASEAN was pitched in the media as being predicated on Hun Sen’s agreement to hold elections. Preparations, although stalled, were already underway before the grenade attack and the coup. He and his regime had created the necessary political chaos to ensure any electoral opposition was severely damaged allowing them to control the process as much as they could thereafter.
The murder of more than a hundred mainly FUNCINPEC officials in the aftermath of the coup was sidelined by the international community in Cambodia as attention was turned to the elections. In spite of calls from some international quarters to postpone them preparations continued without opposition leaders. When they did eventually return to the country they had very little time to rebuild their shattered party infrastructures.
To sum up, in 1997–8 Hun Sen and his regime were getting away with murder then, just as they are today, under the glare of international scrutiny. The trade-off in 1998 was international legitimation of deeply flawed parliamentary elections, the outcome of which continues to create political instability and state sponsored violence and murder today.
If Prof. Evans meant to imply in his opening remarks that the episodes in 1997 did not receive the attention they deserved in bringing Hun Sen to book for his actions, then I would agree. If he was implying that the international response was a façade to mask the true goal of international politicians and diplomats to hold elections despite the murders and human rights abuses, then I would also agree.
But if his comments were intended to gloss over these facts, then I would strongly disagree that the international reactions did not amount to much. On the contrary, they rewarded Hun Sen with an election he had greater control of than he otherwise would have without the coup.
Today’s dynamics may different, but just how different are they? China was already making its presence felt in Cambodia with grants and loans in 1996, and it was clear that that was set to continue. All said and done, the underlying problem for Hun Sen remains that without thorough going changes within his party he would never win an election on a level playing field against the opposition. Even for seasoned observers, it’s hard to imagine how Hun Sen and his international partners could keep a straight face and spin the outcome of this year’s election without the participation of the CNRP.
Michael Sullivan is an independent researcher with extensive experience working in Cambodia, most recently as Director of the Centre for Khmer Studies (2009–2013) and Advisor to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia/COMFREL (2015–2016). He received his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2005. His book “Cambodia Votes: Democracy, Authority and International Support for Elections 2003–2013” (2016) is published by NIAS Press. He was a speaker at the Cambodia on the Brink conference held at the Australian National University on 9 March 2018.
Two Tough Guys–Rodrigo Duterte and Samdech Hun Sen of Cambodia: they are passionate their countries and they mean business.
In May, Rodrigo Duterte, the provincial Mayor who had just been elected President of the Philippines after promising to rid the country of crime and drugs by killing thousands of criminals, vowed to stop swearing. He told reporters, “Don’t fuck with me.” He called political figures “gay.” When a reporter asked about his health, he replied, “How is your wife’s vagina? Is it smelly? Or not smelly? Give me a report.” In an overwhelmingly Catholic country, he swore at the Pope. At first, he defended his language as a gesture of radical populism. “I am testing the élite in this country,” he said. “Because we are fundamentally a feudal country.” But, the day after the election, he appeared with a popular televangelist and said, “I need to control my mouth.” He compared his forthcoming transformation to that of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. “If you are the President of the country, you need to be prim and proper,” he said. His inaugural speech, in June, was obscenity-free.
The resolution didn’t last. Duterte’s war on drugs has resulted in the deaths of more than three thousand people, drawing condemnation from human-rights groups and Western governments. In early September (2016) before the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in Laos, a journalist asked Duterte what he would say if President Barack Obama raised the issue of human rights. “You know, the Philippines is not a vassal state,” he replied. “We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States.” Alternating between English and Tagalog, and pounding on the lectern, Duterte, it was widely reported, said of Obama, “Son of a whore, I’ll curse you at that forum.”
Duterte does not, as he has put it, “give a shit” about human rights, which he sees as a Western obsession that keeps the Philippines from taking the action necessary to clean up the country. He is also hypersensitive to criticism. “Duterte’s weakness is, really, he’s a tough guy,” Greco Belgica, a Filipino politician and an ally of Duterte’s, said. “You do not talk down to a tough guy. He’ll snap.”
The day after insulting Obama, Duterte released a statement expressing regret that his comment “came across as a personal attack on the U.S. President.” In his outburst, Duterte had used the Tagalog phrase putang ina, which means, literally, “your mother is a whore.” But it is also used to communicate frustration, as in “son of a bitch.” “It’s just an expression,” Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s Chief Legal Counsel, explained to the press. “I don’t think it was directed to President Obama.” A columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer provided foreign journalists with a satirical guide to “Dutertespeak”: “Putang ina really means ‘I firmly believe you are mistaken.’ ”
Duterte thinks out loud, in long, rambling monologues, laced with inscrutable jokes and wild exaggeration. His manner is central to his populist image, but it inevitably leads to misunderstanding, even among Filipino journalists. Ernie Abella, Duterte’s spokesman, recently pleaded with the Presidential press corps to use its “creative imagination” when interpreting Duterte’s comments.
There is mutual respect between Duterte and Donald Trump
On September 7th, the second day of the ASEAN summit, Duterte and Obama met briefly for the first time. Obama later described their encounter: “It was not a long interaction, and what I indicated to him is that my team should be meeting with his and determine how we can move forward on a whole range of issues.” Duterte presented a starker version: “I told him in a holding room, ‘President Obama, I’m President Duterte. I never made that statement. Check it out.’ ” According to Duterte, Obama was dismissive, and replied, “My men will talk to you.”
The next day, Duterte showed ASEAN delegates, including Obama, photographs of Muslims who had been killed by U.S. soldiers in the Philippines in the early twentieth century. “This is human rights,” Duterte recalled telling the delegates. “Do not tell me this is water under the bridge. A human-rights violation, whether committed by Moses or Abraham, is still a violation of human rights.”
What began as a reaction to a personal slight has led to a dramatic shift in foreign relations. Duterte has increasingly, if fitfully, signaled his intention to distance himself from the United States, the Philippines’ closest ally, in favor of China, which previous governments have viewed warily. In September, he called for the withdrawal of a contingent of U.S. military advisers and for the end of annual joint combat exercises between the two nations. (Last week, he approved limited exercises.) During a state visit to Beijing in October, he announced a “separation” from the United States. “America has lost now,” he told a group of Chinese businessmen. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia.”
As Erwin Romulo, a former editor of EsquirePhilippines, told me, “There are no slow news days anymore in the Philippines.”
Duterte has an eighty-six-per-cent approval rating in the Philippines, but his break with America has proved controversial. Opinion surveys regularly find the Philippines to be among the most pro-American countries. The language of instruction in schools is English, and basketball is a national obsession. Around four million Filipinos live and work in the U.S., and the country is one of the Philippines’ most important trading partners. American interests have typically made up a large proportion of foreign investment in the Philippines. In the Manila Standard, the widely respected former President Fidel Ramos compared Duterte to the captain of a sinking ship. Even many on the Philippine left, who decry U.S. influence, worry that Duterte may be trading one imperial master for another.
Former President of The Philippines Fidel Ramos
Duterte’s pivot to China is a rebuke to the Obama Administration’s foreign-policy shift away from the Middle East and toward Asia. But a senior State Department official said that he thought the talk of a complete realignment with China was largely bluster. “The issue is not so much what he says—the issue is what he does,” the official said. He pointed out that the U.S. and the Philippines are so deeply entwined that it would take longer than one Presidential term to unravel their ties. “That said, if he’s absolutely determined, he could do a lot of damage to the U.S.-Philippine relationship.”
Since the overthrow of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986, the Philippines has been a democracy, if an often dysfunctional one. Duterte’s actions challenge the liberal Western values that are enshrined in the Philippine constitution. Although he styles himself a revolutionary, Duterte seems uncertain about what kind of order will replace the one he aims to overthrow, or whether he will be around to see it. He often intimates that he may not live to finish his term, whether because of overwork and age—he is seventy-one—or something more sinister. “Will I survive the six years?” he asked recently. “I’d make a prediction: maybe not.”
The Philippines has had an “up-and-down love affair with the Americans,” Senator Alan Peter Cayetano told me when we met in Manila, in September. Cayetano had been Duterte’s running mate, but Presidents and Vice-Presidents are elected separately in the Philippines, and he lost. We met in an office belonging to his wife, the mayor of Taguig City, thirty minutes southeast of Manila, among the glittering high-rises of the financial district known as Bonifacio Global City.
In 1898, after winning the Spanish-American War, the United States took possession of the Philippines. President William McKinley assured Filipinos that America’s aim was “benevolent assimilation,” but the U.S. Army proceeded to crush a burgeoning independence movement. Under Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. established a legislature in Manila with the aim of schooling Filipinos in the ways of representative democracy. But, with American acquiescence, the legislature was monopolized by a small group of élite landowners, bolstering the power of an oligarchy that continues to dominate political life. Cayetano explained that Duterte spoke harshly of the United States because of its checkered past in the region. “We embraced and loved the Americans, but, at the same time, rather than freeing, they colonized us,” he said. “This mix brought out strong, passionate feelings of both love and hate for our former colonizers.”
The U.S. military presence has been the most divisive issue. During the Second World War, the Japanese military occupied the Philippines for more than three years. In October, 1944, U.S. forces returned to the country, and its islands served as an important staging ground in the Pacific Theatre. In 1946, the country was granted formal independence. Soon after, the U.S. secured a treaty that allowed it to maintain a permanent military presence, and thousands of troops were stationed at two huge bases (Subic Bay and Clarks Air Base) throughout the Cold War. Nationalists and leftists protested against the bases, which they saw as symbols of America’s colonial legacy. In 1991, amid rising anger at a new base treaty, the Senate declined to renew the lease. But, in 2014, President Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s pro-American predecessor, signed an agreement allowing U.S. troops to return on a temporary basis.
Clarks Air Force Base, Philippines
Duterte is the first President to come from the island of Mindanao, which has a particularly fraught history with the U.S. military. Mindanao, the biggest of the southern islands, is home to the country’s large Muslim minority; for more than three hundred years, while the Spanish conquered the north and converted its people to Catholicism, the Muslim tribes in the southern islands resisted. When the U.S. instituted a civilian colonial authority over the Philippines, Mindanao was put under military rule and subjected to a campaign of pacification which resulted in many thousands of deaths. To people in Manila, Mindanao is known for guerrilla fighters and rampaging kidnap-for-ransom gangs. It is also home to the New People’s Army—the armed wing of the Communist Party—and an assortment of Muslim rebel groups, including Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist organization that recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In the past fifty years, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced in Mindanao’s overlapping conflicts.
For twenty-one years, Duterte was the mayor of Davao, a city of two million in Mindanao, and he often brings up abuses from the colonial era in his anti-American rants. But he has said that a more recent incident was responsible for what he calls his “hatred” of America. In 2002, not long after U.S. special forces launched an operation against Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao, Michael Meiring, an American treasure hunter, was staying in a hotel in Davao when a cache of dynamite stored in his room exploded. There were rumors in Davao that Meiring was a C.I.A. agent. In Duterte’s telling, two F.B.I. agents took Meiring from his hospital room and repatriated him before he could be questioned by local authorities. Duterte was furious at what he saw as an infringement of his authority as mayor. He said he demanded that the U.S. Ambassador at the time, Francis Ricciardone, conduct an investigation, and he has fumed about the lack of answers ever since. (In an e-mail, Ricciardone told me that he did not recall discussing the case with Duterte, but he called the allegations “preposterous.”)
Since then, Duterte has repeatedly expressed his displeasure with the U.S. military presence in Mindanao. In 2007, he refused to let the U.S. and the Philippines hold joint military exercises in Davao, saying that such drills would be a magnet for terrorists. “Because of their arrogance and pretended superiority, the Americans invaded Iraq to kill Saddam Hussein but ended up destroying the country,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen to us.” In 2013, he denied requests to launch American drone flights from Davao. “I do not want it,” he said. “I do not want trouble and killings.”
Duterte comes from a provincial political dynasty. His father, Vicente, was related to Ramon Durano, a notorious warlord in the central province of Cebu. In the late nineteen-forties, Vicente served as mayor of Danao City. Rodrigo Duterte was born in 1945, the second of five children. After the Second World War, Filipinos flocked to sparsely populated areas of Mindanao, seeking economic opportunity. In 1950, the Duterte family moved to Davao, a frontier town of plantations and indigenous tribes that was settled by American military veterans. Property disputes were common, and Duterte says that his family’s first home was demolished because it was built on someone else’s land. But the family’s hardship was short-lived. In 1959, Vicente became governor of the province of Davao, and today the Dutertes are the dominant political force in the region. Duterte’s daughter, Sara, is the mayor of Davao City, and his eldest son, Paolo, is vice-mayor. His younger brother, Benjamin, has served as a city councilman.
At a café in a Davao City mall, I met Duterte’s younger sister, Jocellyn, who works as a real-estate agent. A slender, elegant woman in her sixties with short-cropped hair, she was accompanied by two male assistants. Her composed manner bore little resemblance to her brother’s theatrical truculence. She spoke deliberately, referring to Duterte as “the Mayor” or “the President.”
Jocellyn described a childhood dominated by her father’s political career. Starting at 8 A.M., the house would fill with locals seeking jobs or favors. “You’re always in the public eye,” she said. “You hardly had any freedom.”
Rodrigo Duterte was fascinated by his family’s bodyguards. “He was always in the company of policemen, military men,” Jocellyn said. As a teen-ager, he was fond of motorcycles, girls, and guns, interests that distracted him from his studies. It took him seven years to finish high school.
According to Jocellyn, Duterte was peculiarly sensitive. “He could look at a dead body or a gunshot victim, but when he sees his own blood he faints,” she said. She recalled one day when he was playing with a gun and his finger got caught in the slide. “We were all looking at it, and it looked all right,” she said. “We saw him getting paler by the minute.” Jocellyn told me that when Duterte feels threatened he lashes out.
Duterte’s mother, Soledad, a teacher and a well-known social activist, was a strict disciplinarian who often punished Rodrigo by making him kneel on the ground and pray for hours at a time. When she got fed up with his staying out late, she locked him out of the house. He started sleeping in a shed.
In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos, a young provincial senator, won the Presidency of the Philippines with the pledge “This nation can be great again.” Marcos appeared to have the will necessary to reduce the influence of the colonial élite. He was viewed as a technocrat, but he merely replaced the old oligarchy with his own friends and relatives, including his glamorous wife, Imelda. Over time, his family amassed a fortune of up to ten billion dollars. In 1972, during his second term, Marcos declared martial law, citing Communist and Muslim insurgencies. Marcos’s closest advisers, who were known as the Rolex 12, for the wristwatches that he supposedly gave them, rounded up and tortured the regime’s political rivals.
Vicente Duterte was briefly a member of Marcos’s cabinet—Duterte has said that his father was a supporter “until the end”—while Soledad was a leading anti-Marcos protester in Davao. Duterte, at least initially, took after his mother. At the Lyceum of the Philippines University, in Manila, Duterte studied under José Maria Sison, the now exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Sison saw U.S. imperialism and the Philippines’ feudal state as inextricably linked: in exchange for maintaining access to military bases during the Vietnam War, the U.S. allowed Marcos to continue to oppress the Philippines. Duterte joined Sison’s “nationalist youth” organization, Kabataang Makabayan, and he still occasionally speaks fondly of Sison. Soon after Duterte was elected President, Sison released a recording of a Skype call in which an unusually deferential Duterte chats with him about ongoing peace talks with the New People’s Army.
Duterte attended law school in Manila. According to a story he recounted with glee on the campaign trail, while he was a law student he shot a bullying classmate in the leg. The classmate sustained only a minor wound, and, thanks to the intervention of sympathetic professors, Duterte was allowed to graduate. Despite his leftist tendencies, he took a job as a prosecutor in Davao. The Marcos regime had jailed tens of thousands of prisoners, and one of Duterte’s tasks was prosecuting political subversives. According to Luz Ilagan, a former congresswoman from Davao, Duterte was able to help dissidents without compromising his position in the government. Ilagan’s husband, Laurente Ilagan, was one of three human-rights attorneys in Davao who were arrested in the nineteen-eighties. Duterte made sure that he wasn’t abused, and they later became friends.“The best he could do was to take custody of the activists, to insure that they would be physically safe,” Ilagan told me.
On August 21, 1983, after three years in exile in the United States, the opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr., was shot dead after he landed at the Manila airport. The assassination galvanized the anti-Marcos forces, culminating in the People Power revolution of February, 1986. Disaffected military leaders staged a coup, and hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the EDSA highway around Manila to demand that Marcos resign. Finally, Ronald Reagan, who had long seen Marcos as a valuable ally in the fight against Communism, withdrew his support. Marcos fled the Philippines for Hawaii, leaving the Presidency to Corazon Aquino, the widow of Benigno.
The new government asked Soledad Duterte to be Vice-Mayor of Davao, and she recommended her son instead. In 1988, Duterte ran for mayor. According to Carlos Zarate, a reporter for a local paper at the time, Duterte was the chosen candidate of Marcos loyalists who had been deposed during the revolution. “That was a very peculiar situation,” Zarate said. “He was the candidate of some pro-Marcos guys but he was also close to the left.” Duterte campaigned on a law-and-order platform and won.
Davao was one of the most violent cities in the Philippines. It was there that Communist rebels, after years of waging war in the countryside, first experimented with urban warfare. The New People’s Army was firmly entrenched in the slums, where it drew support from a population fed up with corrupt police and an abusive military. N.P.A. “sparrow squads” assassinated police officers and government officials; in turn, a government-backed vigilante group known as Alsa Masa, or Masses Arise, murdered Communists. Criminal gangs kidnapped prominent members of the business community, targeting them for ransom. The Bankerohan Bridge, over the Davao River, became known as a dumping place for bodies. If a victim had been dispatched with a single bullet, journalists would attribute the killing to N.P.A. assassins.
Duterte took over the kidnapping investigations, working closely with REACT, a network of businessmen. They developed a rudimentary tracking system: when a kidnapper used a pay phone to make a ransom call, REACT members were alerted by C.B. radio. They would sound their car horns in distinctive patterns, according to which neighborhood they were stationed in, and, based on the honking in the background, investigators could get a rough idea of where the kidnappers were calling from. After Duterte solved a couple of high-profile cases, the number of kidnappings decreased.
In Davao, Duterte, known as Digong, is more popular than ever. When I visited in September, a few months after the election, civic groups, nurses, and local politicians had hung congratulatory banners from the concrete buildings that line the major streets. A barbecued-chicken restaurant was offering a discount in honor of Duterte’s election. His house, a modest two-story green building, has become a tourist attraction; a cardboard cutout of the President stood in the driveway, and, a few houses down the block, a teen-age boy sold Duterte key chains and mugs to tourists.
Residents of Davao credit Duterte with bringing prosperity to their city. A self-described socialist, Duterte nonetheless championed pro-business policies and employed market-oriented officials in the city government. His administration lured investors with tax breaks and incentives. There was a seventy-two-hour deadline on the processing of business permits, after which any delay would have to be explained to Duterte. A board made up of government officials and business leaders aggressively courted investors in Manila and abroad, resulting in a growing outsourcing industry and the construction of high-rise condominiums and malls. In 2014, Davao’s economy grew 9.4 per cent, a rate higher than that of any other region. As President, Duterte has promised to implement the “Davao model” nationwide.
Today Davao has a central 911 system, and new police vehicles can be seen whipping around the city. The absurdly low speed limit of about twenty miles per hour is strictly enforced, as is a public smoking ban. Residents see these small disciplinary measures as indicative of the strength of Duterte’s political will. One local businessman recounted with admiration the time he tried to talk his way out of a ticket for smoking. The Police Officer told him he had to fine him, because he did not want to make the Mayor mad.
In 1996, in a press conference, Duterte announced a crackdown on petty crime. According to a journalist named Editha Caduaya, soon afterward, seven alleged criminals—drug dealers and purse snatchers—were killed in one day. Some of the bodies were dumped, along with a cardboard sign that read “Solugoón Sa Katawhan” (“Servant of the People”). Between 1998 and 2009, Human Rights Watch reported a total of eight hundred and fourteen killings, mostly of teen-agers, street kids who were small-time drug dealers or petty thieves. The killings were attributed to a shadowy vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the D.D.S. often worked in a style known in the Philippines as “riding in tandem”: two men on a motorcycle ride up to a target, shoot him with a handgun, and speed off. D.D.S. members told H.R.W. that they worked off a list given to them by police officers and were paid between five thousand and fifty thousand pesos ($104 to $1,041) per target. One member said that the police had established a bidding process to choose among various cells of hit men. “If several cells want the job, they would discuss which cell can do it better,” he said.
For a death squad, the D.D.S. has a surprisingly good reputation. “The killings had the support or backing of the middle classes,” a journalist in Davao told me. “They said that it makes the city safe.” Another resident said, “The general sense is, if you don’t do anything bad, you don’t have anything to fear. It’s become like the bogeyman that you tell the kids about.” In 2012, a local television channel polled its viewers on their preferred response to a crime wave that was sweeping the city; sixty-seven per cent suggested reviving the D.D.S.
Duterte has frequently spoken approvingly of the killings and intimated that he had a hand in the D.D.S. When Caduaya asked him about his role, he told her, “I am a lawyer and I will not do the extra-judicial thing, but I will clean the city for my people to live in peace.” Caduaya told me, “We know he is there, but you cannot see him.” A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reported that Duterte had “all but admitted his role” in the D.D.S. to the Commission on Human Rights. When the commission’s regional director pleaded with Duterte to stop the killings, he reportedly responded, “I’m not done yet.”
It is difficult to find a resident of Davao who is willing to speak out against the death squads. One day I visited Clarita Alia, a sixty-two-year-old vegetable vender, who became a strident critic of Duterte after her four teen-age sons were killed within six years. She lives in a one-room shack on a narrow street in Bankerohan, the site of the largest market in Davao. An ancient television sat on a plastic barrel, and bedding and clothes were stacked along one wall. Alia sat cross-legged on a wooden bed frame with no mattress; next to her, her daughter played with her three-year-old granddaughter. When I asked Alia what she thought of Duterte, she said, “He is a demon.”
Speaking in Bisaya, the regional language, she explained that her trouble began in July, 2001, when police came to her home to arrest her eighteen-year-old-son, Richard, for an alleged rape. They had no warrant, so she sent them away. One of the officers told her that if she didn’t allow them to arrest Richard all of her sons would be killed. On July 17th, Richard was stabbed to death. Less than three months later, her son Christopher was also stabbed to death. Bobby was killed in 2002, Fernando in 2007. “I have heartaches even now,” she told me, starting to cry. “Every interview, I keep crying. If they were still alive, they could help me make a living.”
The Alia boys were troublesome street kids, typical targets of the D.D.S. The police told Alia that her sons had been killed in gang wars, but they never produced suspects. I asked Alia who she believed was responsible. “Who but Digong?” she replied.
Before Richard was killed, he sought help from Tambayan, a nongovernmental organization that provides aid to Davao’s street children. As more children turned up dead, Tambayan began to agitate for Duterte to stop the killings. The group organized mothers who had lost children to the killings and staged a protest outside city hall. In 2002, Tambayan invited Duterte to a forum of twenty mothers, but he didn’t show up. Duterte does not hide his disdain for victims of the D.D.S. “I’m more interested in solving crimes against innocent people,” he told a reporter from the Washington Post, in 2003. “I’m not at all interested in the killings of criminals, especially people involved with drugs.”
Alia had written a letter that she intended to read to Duterte at the forum. She keeps it in a plastic folder along with news clippings of her interviews. She handed me the creased and yellowed paper, which read, “If a child has committed a crime, it is not necessary that his life should be lost. They don’t deserve to die, because they can change. . . . Where is the justice? Is it only for the rich?”
Alia tries to persuade other mothers to speak up. Some are afraid, she said; others seem resigned to the fact that this was the fate of children who stepped out of line in Duterte’s Davao. “There are mothers who approach me who also cry, but then fall silent,” she said. “I asked them, ‘What if your child is innocent?’ And they just fall silent.”
In 2013, a grassroots movement on social media arose, urging Duterte to run for President. He responded with a performance of agonized indecision. One day he would lament that he was too old for the long hours required of a President and too poor to fund the campaign; the next day he would muse about the dire actions he would take if elected. “If ever I get to file my certificate of candidacy for President, I am telling the Filipino people not to vote for me, because it will be bloody,” he said in a TV interview in August, 2015.
In November, 2015, shortly before the start of the Presidential campaign, at a birthday party for a law-school classmate, Duterte announced that he was running. He became a replacement candidate for P.D.P.-Laban, a nearly moribund party that was founded in the nineteen-eighties to oppose Marcos. Duterte had neither the family name nor the party machinery that is typically needed to compete in a Presidential election. The early front-runner, Senator Grace Poe, is the daughter of the hugely popular movie star Fernando Poe, Jr.; another favorite, Manuel (Mar) Roxas II, the grandson of former President Manuel Roxas, was a member of Benigno Aquino III’s cabinet.
Duterte focussed on illegal drugs, an issue that has never registered among voters’ major concerns. “The usual top three problems would be health, education, housing,” Cayetano told me. But the Philippines’ close proximity to China has made it a lucrative market for drug smugglers. Methamphetamine, known as shabu, is widely abused, especially in the slums, where pedicab drivers and day laborers use the drug in order to work longer hours. Cayetano said, “He was bullheaded in telling people our problem is drugs. We’re nearly a narco-state, and our police are afraid. Our judges, fiscals”—prosecutors—“are either afraid or on the take. Congressmen are in it, mayors are in it.” The idea that drug traffickers have penetrated the government did not seem outlandish to many Filipinos, who have seen two Presidents in the past fifteen years enmeshed in racketeering scandals involving illegal gambling syndicates.
Duterte speaks of drug use as an existential threat, a “contamination” that will destroy the country unless radical action is taken. “They are the living walking dead,” he said of shabu users. “They are of no use to society anymore.” Duterte sees drug use as a symptom of a government’s ineffectiveness, but his animus suggests a personal vendetta. Duterte, who has four children by two women, was asked at a Presidential debate what he would do if he caught his children using drugs. “None of my children are into illegal drugs,” he responded. “But my order is, even if it is a member of my family, kill him.” The WikiLeaks cable reported that the regional director of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights had claimed that one of Duterte’s sons had a history of drug abuse. “The Mayor channeled his anger over his son’s drug use not just against drug pushers, but also drug users, eventually leading him to embrace vigilante killings as a means to reduce crime,” the report read. After one of Duterte’s political opponents raised the allegation of drug abuse, Duterte’s eldest son, Paolo, took a drug test and publicized his clean result.
Duterte’s campaign had a rocky start. In a speech announcing his candidacy, he rambled on for more than an hour, offering an account of personally killing kidnappers and setting their car on fire, pledging to kill “up to a hundred thousand criminals” when elected, and boasting of his womanizing. “If I can love a hundred million and one, I can love four women at the same time,” he said.
Duterte’s language confirmed his image as a political outsider. “It was something people could relate to,” Pia Ranada, a reporter at the news Web site Rappler, told me. She said that Duterte came across as “the father who would protect you but also the masa leader, the populist leader who will look after your interests, who cares for you because he’s one of you.”
On the campaign trail, Duterte typically wore a plaid shirt and jeans. On the rare occasions when he wore a barong, a formal embroidered shirt, he rolled up the sleeves. He spoke not in the English-Tagalog mixture of the capital but in a creole of English, Tagalog, and Bisaya known as Davao Tagalog. At the beginning of the campaign, he ushered Ranada and another journalist into his house in Davao and showed off the traditional tabò, or water dipper, that he used to bathe. His one extravagance was a large collection of shoes, which he joked was the only thing that he had in common with Imelda Marcos.
This was not quite true. Duterte took from the Marcos years an ability to play both sides of a messy conflict. Marcos, who died in 1989, in Honolulu, is still surprisingly popular in the Philippines; most of his loyalists never lost faith, and many younger Filipinos look back at the charismatic leader with a kind of secondhand nostalgia. During the campaign, Duterte courted Marcos loyalists assiduously, making it a priority to rebury Marcos in the national Heroes Cemetery. He reportedly considered Marcos’s son, a fifty-nine-year-old senator named Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos, Jr., as a running mate, and he praised the elder Marcos, saying that he would have been the Philippines’ best President, “if he did not become a dictator.”
Nicole Curato, a sociologist at the University of Canberra, was doing field work in the slums of Tacloban, a provincial capital in the central Philippines, and saw the excitement inspired by Duterte’s candidacy. “It was a very do-it-yourself campaign,” she said. To attract crowds to rallies, politicians typically rely on a strategy known as hakot, in which poor Filipinos are given a free meal, a couple of hundred pesos, and a campaign shirt, and are bused from the slums to the city plaza, where they cheer for the chosen candidate. But Curato said that Duterte’s supporters borrowed money to get to the plaza themselves. Duterte is perpetually late, which meant that supporters might be kept waiting in the sweltering heat for as long as seven hours. Yet it seemed not to bother them. “People were really crazy about him,” Ranada told me. “It’s the only word for it.”
Duterte relied on an army of volunteers to publicize his campaign on social media. The Philippines has among the highest rates of social-media use in the world, in large part because millions of Filipinos employed abroad use it to keep in touch with their families. Overseas workers were a crucial segment of Duterte’s supporters. Since they were spread out all over the world, they could post pro-Duterte messages on Facebook at all hours. One of Duterte’s most rabid supporters was a pop star and sex blogger named Mocha Uson, the leader of a girl group called the Mocha Girls. When Duterte was accused of sexism, she posted on Facebook an account of how, when the Mocha Girls came to Davao, he was always a gentleman, unlike most mayors, who tried to arrange liaisons with them.
Duterte won in a landslide, earning six million more votes than Mar Roxas. Many people saw his victory as a protest against the political élite’s continuing inability to address the country’s problems. Duterte’s predecessor, the reformist Benigno Aquino III, had some success addressing corruption and introduced some economic reforms, but Filipinos saw little change in their lives: they still endured hellish commutes on crumbling roads; they continued to be victimized by crime, corrupt police, and a broken justice system; and about a quarter of them still lived in poverty. If these were the fruits of liberal democracy, many thought, perhaps it was time to try something new. “It’s a repudiation of the past six years of a regime that claims to be after good governance, participatory democracy, but really it doesn’t deliver the goods,” Curato said.
In June, Duterte held a victory party at the Davao City Crocodile Park. In a speech in front of two hundred thousand supporters, he received the loudest applause when he addressed drug dealers. “You sons of bitches,” he said. “I will really kill you.”
During Duterte’s first hundred days in office, the drug war was carried out with a distinctly Filipino mixture of high drama, mass spectacle, and enigmatic violence. In early August, in a speech at a naval base, Duterte read out a list of more than a hundred and fifty politicians and police officers who he alleged were involved in the illegal drug trade, the first of a number of “narcolists” that he released in the following months. It was a tactic from his days as mayor, when he went on his weekly television show, “Gikan Sa Masa, Para Sa Masa,” and read lists of names of alleged criminals and drug dealers, many of whom ended up as victims of the D.D.S.
In Duterte’s first three months as President, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which has been monitoring the killings, listed more than fourteen hundred drug users killed by police and vigilantes. Front pages were filled with photos of the bloodstained victims, bound and gagged with duct tape, who had been shot in the head or garrotted; cardboard signs around their necks served as a warning to others. In the slums of the big cities, police carried out Operation Tokhang, or “knock and plead,” visiting the homes of people who were suspected of involvement with drugs and urging them to turn themselves in. Government reports boasted that seven hundred thousand “drug personalities” surrendered in the first two months in mass ceremonies in malls, city plazas, and auditoriums. An administration official told me that the “Guinness Book of World Records” expressed interest in certifying it as the biggest mass surrender of criminals in history.
From Davao, Duterte brought with him Ronald (the Rock) dela Rosa, who had served as the city’s Police Chief, and made him head of the Philippine National Police. The federal police are notorious for corruption, and Duterte has promised to clean up the force, calling out “ninja” cops who resell drugs confiscated in busts. But he dismissed those killed by police as “drug-crazed” maniacs who had resisted arrest, and claimed that murders attributed to the vigilantes were the result of gang wars. In August, Dela Rosa announced that the campaign had already cut the crime rate in half. The killings have done little to diminish Duterte’s popularity. “It’s part of this narrative that killing has been normalized,” Curato, the sociologist, told me. “Before, it’s the state that turns a blind eye on it, and now a broader society is also willing to just turn a blind eye on the culture of violence.” Extrajudicial killing is common enough that there’s a slang term for it: “salvaging,” which, according to the writer Jose F. Lacuna, derives from the Tagalog salbahe, meaning “wild” or “savage.”
Not long after Duterte took office, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights started a task force to investigate the extrajudicial killings. Chito Gascon, the head of the C.H.R., has warned Duterte that he risks prosecution by the International Criminal Court if he fails to halt them. In September, I met with the leader of the task force, Gwen Pimentel-Gana, at her office. Above her desk hangs a portrait of her father, Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., a Senator who was imprisoned by the Marcos regime.
Pimentel-Gana told me that in the first sixty days of the Duterte administration the commission opened more than two hundred investigations into extrajudicial killings, slightly less than half as many as were opened during the entire six years of the Aquino administration. “We now will have to tell the government,” she said, “in your fight against crime or in your fight against drugs, do not forget that lives of people are sacred.”
When I asked her whether Duterte’s rhetoric was encouraging the killings, she was equivocal: “It’s so difficult sometimes to try to interpret what he’s saying, because one time he says, ‘I’m not for human rights.’ The next time he says, ‘All those who are abusing their authority will be punished.’ ” I asked her about the difference between her tone and that of Human Rights Watch, which has declared the drug war a “human-rights calamity.” She replied brusquely. “I will talk like a Filipino, O.K.?” she said. “An ordinary worker—he goes home every night and, for the first time, when he passes through the narrow streets of his home in a shanty or what, he does not see any more drunkards or people smoking on the streets or children running around and being just left there, abandoned. He sees clean streets, peaceful at night. What would you say?”
Yet an overwhelming number of those killed in Duterte’s drug war have been poor. When asked recently about criticism from anti-poverty groups, Duterte explained that poor people are easier targets. Rich people do drugs on private jets, and “I cannot afford the fighter planes,” he said. Jose Manuel Diokno, a human-rights lawyer, told me, “Those who have a name or have some influence or hold some position who are implicated in the drug trade are given an investigation, they’re given due process. But poorer people whose names appear on the list are just simply killed.” Diokno is the dean of the law school at De La Salle University, in Manila, and the head of the Free Legal Assistance Group, founded by his father during the Marcos era to provide legal assistance to victims of martial law; his father was an opposition senator who was imprisoned for two years without charge.
We spoke on the forty-fourth anniversary of the declaration of martial law. Diokno was preparing to lead a candlelight vigil that evening. He said of that period, “A small segment of the population were branded as Communists. They were depicted as people who are godless, who have no regard for human life. The reasoning then was, since they are like that, then they are not human.” He continued, “Instead of being branded a Communist today, you’re branded a drug user or a drug addict or a drug pusher.”
Diokno pointed to the impunity afforded the Marcoses and their cronies, who have never faced charges. In many cases, they have returned to positions of influence. “The more the authorities encourage themselves and other people to take the law into their own hands, then the more our system is going to become weaker and weaker,” Diokno said. “My fear is that, at some point, it will collapse. If that happens, what will replace it?”
In August, the Senate launched a probe into the killings. The first witness was a woman named Harra Kazuo, the wife of a man who was arrested for shabu possession and killed while detained at a police station. She appeared before the Senate with her face hidden behind large sunglasses, her hair wrapped in a colorful scarf. Police claimed that her husband attempted to grab an officer’s gun, but investigators found that he had been beaten so badly by police that he could not have posed a threat. Kazuo alleged that police officers had previously extorted money from her husband. One investigator for the Commission on Human Rights told me that he believed most of the police killings in the days after Duterte’s election were done to conceal crimes committed by the cops themselves. “It will cover up their bad purpose, and they might get promoted,” he said.
On September 12th, a packed audience in the small Senate chamber heard a remarkable story. Edgar Matobato, an unassuming man with a mop of salt-and-pepper hair, claimed to have been a member of the Davao Death Squad. For more than an hour he calmly narrated a gruesome tale that sounded like the treatment for a Quentin Tarantino film. He said that the squad had as many as five hundred members, and that Duterte was intimately involved in its operation. According to Matobato, Duterte had ordered the killings of a local radio host; the romantic rival of his son Paolo; and his sister Jocellyn’s alleged lover, a dance instructor. (When I asked Jocellyn about Matobato’s testimony, she seemed particularly offended by the suggestion that she had been romantically involved with her dance instructor. “Are you kidding?” she said, scowling. “I’ve been dancing for twenty years. I’ve never involved myself in such a way, emotionally or in any way, with any dance instructor.”) Matobato said that he had personally killed fifty people, either kidnapping a victim before garrotting him in a van or shooting him in the street. The D.D.S. would then chop the victim into pieces and bury him in a quarry owned by one of Duterte’s political allies. Matobato said that he had witnessed Duterte empty two magazines from an Uzi into an agent from the National Bureau of Investigations. (Duterte has said he does not know Matobato, and referred to his testimony as “perjury.”)
The hearings were led by Senator Leila De Lima, a former Secretary of Justice with a reputation for doggedness. In 2009, as chair of the Commission on Human Rights, she opened a high-profile investigation into links between Duterte and the D.D.S. It was the first serious inquiry by Philippine authorities into the D.D.S. De Lima is an imposing woman, with cropped hair and square glasses. She strode into her Senate office nearly three hours past our scheduled interview time, after denouncing Duterte’s latest outrage to a scrum of reporters in the hall, and then disappeared for twenty minutes behind the privacy screen around her desk, like a stage actor collecting herself after a performance.
“Based on what I saw, what I heard, and what we have researched on the phenomenon of killings in Davao, I have no doubt in my mind that there existed such a death squad,” De Lima told me. “It had the acquiescence, at the very least, of the city government, particularly then Mayor Duterte.” De Lima and Duterte have publicly feuded ever since. “I lambasted him in public, lectured him on human rights,” she said. “I think he has not forgotten that.”
In August, Duterte held a press conference in which he accused De Lima of accepting campaign donations from prisoners in exchange for turning a blind eye to drug dealing at New Bilibid, the Philippines’ largest prison. He alleged that De Lima was having an affair with her driver, who acted as the bagman. Duterte’s allies in the House launched their own investigation into De Lima. Drug lords were taken from New Bilibid and brought to the chamber to describe how they had lived like kings in prison—with prostitutes, karaoke, Jacuzzis. Much was made of a purported sex tape featuring De Lima and her driver, and some congressmen threatened to play the tape at the hearing. Duterte claimed to have watched the tape. “Every time I view the video, I lose my appetite,” he joked at a press conference. De Lima denied the allegations about the sex tape, and told me, “The entire government machinery is going after me, making my life so difficult now, and hoping that I will just surrender in defeat.” Duterte’s supporters on social media have followed his example, viciously attacking De Lima and other critics. Nearly every journalist I spoke with mentioned a newly oppressive atmosphere online, in which people have begun to restrain their opinions for fear of provoking an angry mob.
As I travelled around Manila, it seemed that every taxi-driver on the congested roads had the radio tuned to the hearings in the House and the Senate; televisions in every bar were playing them, too. When the hearings occurred simultaneously, one news channel showed them in split-screen. But the public fascination centered more on the political showdown between De Lima and Duterte than on Matobato’s revelations. Filipinos are wary of assigning credibility to information presented at Senate hearings, where anything can be entered into the public record without even the modest protections of the Philippines’ liberal libel laws.
The historian Alfred McCoy has described the Philippine Senate as “a collection of basketball players, television personalities, movie stars, and failed coup plotters.” One member of the Justice Committee investigating the extrajudicial killings was Antonio Trillanes IV, who has led two coup attempts. Another, Panfilo Lacson, who headed an élite Manila police squad in the nineties, was accused of massacring eleven unarmed bank robbers. Senator Manny Pacquiao, the boxing star and Duterte ally, led an effort to depose De Lima as leader of the Senate hearings. Her replacement was Senator Richard Gordon, who recently suggested giving Duterte the power to suspend habeas corpus. After the Matobato hearing, a journalist texted me, “What you witnessed was another installment of our national telenovela.”
On September 17th, a few weeks after the ASEAN summit, Duterte’s administration secured the release of Kjartan Sekkingstad, a Norwegian who had been kidnapped by the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf the previous fall. Abu Sayyaf fighters had stormed a beach resort on an island near Davao and bundled Sekkingstad and three other men into a speedboat. Two of the men, Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, both Canadians, were beheaded. Abu Sayyaf, which has only about four hundred fighters, has conducted a series of kidnappings, beheadings, and bombings. In 2004, the group bombed a ferry near Manila, killing a hundred and sixteen people, the worst terrorist attack in the history of the Philippines. In August, Duterte ordered the military to destroy Abu Sayyaf.
Released Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad, front row left, poses with Moro National Liberation Front
Even as Duterte takes a ruthless approach to drug dealers and petty criminals, he has shown sympathy to various rebel groups that have been in a violent struggle against the state for more than fifty years. As mayor of Davao, he posed for snapshots with commanders in Communist guerrilla camps and urged local businesses to pay the so-called “revolutionary taxes” that the Communists demanded in the areas they controlled. He considers Nur Misuari, the leader of the Moro National Liberation Front, a rebel group fighting for an independent Muslim nation, a friend. In 2013, after Misuari was accused of orchestrating a siege of the town of Zamboanga, leaving a dozen residents dead, the government issued a warrant for his arrest. Duterte gave Misuari’s wife sanctuary in Davao. The M.N.L.F. has repaid him by keeping its fighters out of Davao. Ruben Bangayan, a wealthy businessman and a longtime supporter of Duterte’s, said that Duterte told the rebels, “If you want to come to Davao, you are welcome, but no guns.” Bangayan framed Duterte’s actions as sage pragmatism. “He built on good relationships with those groups for the selfish purpose of peace in Davao,” he said. “You had to do that.”
The day that Sekkingstad was released, I was in Davao with Ruben Bangayan and his brother Eddie. Sekkingstad had been married to their late cousin, and after he was kidnapped Eddie asked Duterte, who was still the Mayor, for help. “He said, ‘I will try,’ ” Eddie told me. “He always helps when it comes to kidnappings.” Eddie had rented the private jet that was, at that moment, preparing to fly Sekkingstad to Davao.
Eddie explained that Abu Sayyaf had turned Sekkingstad over to the M.N.L.F.; like Abu Sayyaf, the M.N.L.F. has its stronghold on the island of Jolo, off the southwestern coast of Mindanao. Duterte later revealed that Nur Misuari had been crucial to the negotiations over Sekkingstad.
The weather in Jolo turned stormy that evening, and they could not fly Sekkingstad out. I joined the Bangayans the next afternoon when they went to meet him. In order to avoid the media, the plan was to fly Sekkingstad to a beach resort in the city and clean him up before bringing him to the press conference. We made our way down a narrow road lined with thatch-roofed bamboo-and-concrete shanties, and pulled into the parking lot of the Seagull White Sands Beach Resort. Beyond a beach where families were playing volleyball, a concrete pier jutted into the sea. The Norwegian Ambassador, Erik Førner, and his entourage were waiting on a helipad at the end of the pier. A black helicopter approached, circled three times, and touched down, sending up a spray of seawater. The door opened, and Sekkingstad stepped out, supported by Jess Dureza, an adviser of Duterte’s who had led the negotiations. Sekkingstad had a huge beard and long scraggly hair that whipped in the wind from the helicopter blades. He wore an ill-fitting camouflage jacket with a bright-red M.N.L.F. patch. The jacket revealed his emaciated forearms. Sekkingstad hugged the Ambassador and the Bangayans, and we hustled back to the beach, through the throng of families, who were now recording the scene on their cell phones. They burst into applause.
I asked Dureza, who wore mirrored Oakley sunglasses and a black flight vest over a Jaguar racing shirt, how he’d been able to free Sekkingstad. “Magic, magic,” he said, with a laugh. “I can negotiate with anyone except my own wife!” (It was later reported that Sekkingstad had been ransomed for more than six hundred thousand dollars.)
The Norwegians and Sekkingstad went off into the hotel. A few minutes later, Sekkingstad emerged, his gaunt face clean-shaven and his hair roughly shorn, his body swimming in the shirt and slacks that the Bangayans had provided.
The Filipinos and the Norwegians huddled together to plan the rest of the evening. The Norwegians claimed that Sekkingstad had asked to be flown immediately from Manila to Norway, where his family was waiting, while the Filipinos insisted that he wanted to stay in Davao.
I sat at a nearby table, straining to make out the conversation. Dureza said, “It is very important that we brief him for intelligence.” He argued that the Bangayans deserved to spend some time with Sekkingstad before he was whisked away. “He lived with them, and, I tell you, the Bangayans did a lot to bring him out,” Dureza said. A Norwegian security officer continued to press his case, and Dureza started to shout, pounding his fist on the table. “Why are you telling him that you need to take him out of Davao tonight?” he said. “You are still on Philippines territory!”
The argument lasted only a few minutes. Soon Dureza was laughing and shaking Førner’s hand. It was settled: Sekkingstad would fly to Manila directly after meeting with Duterte, who was in Davao, where he spends almost every weekend.
The press conference was scheduled for 7 P.M. at the nearby Matina Enclaves, a luxury condominium development owned by one of Duterte’s supporters. Forty journalists, photographers, and TV cameramen waited in a small meeting room with a podium. Duterte was more punctual than usual: at 8:22 P.M., his arrival was announced with a song, “Duterte for Real Reform,” by the Filipino folk star Freddie Aguilar. Aguilar had written the song for Duterte’s campaign, and a recording is played before most of his public appearances. (Sample lyrics: “Look around you / Crime is rampant / Rape, drugs, and stealing / Should be stopped.”) Duterte was accompanied by a number of security guards, who have adopted the President’s plaid shirt as their uniform. As the Norwegians and the Bangayans took their seats, Duterte chatted with a couple of journalists. When Dureza took the podium, Duterte stood awkwardly in front of him until an aide instructed him to sit next to Sekkingstad.
“Mr. President, may I then therefore present to you Kjartan Sekkingstad, who is now a free man,” Dureza said. Duterte took the podium. He spoke in a low, halting monotone, as if he had something else on his mind. “First of all, I would like to thank the efforts—the efforts beyond human patience—of Secretary Dureza and, of course, Nur Misuari,” Duterte said. He went on, “I was just, you know, up there directing the traffic of where and how to go about the job.” He put his hand to his face, stroking his chin with his thumb, which heightened his air of disinterest. He often makes this gesture while speaking; after a comedy show parodied the tic, he explained that he does it to soothe a nerve that was damaged in a motorcycle accident.
He trailed off, then turned to a subject that he clearly found more engaging. “The problem is,” he said, raising his voice and his eyebrows, “is it safe in Mindanao?”
As the Norwegians looked on, Duterte held forth on the chaos that he saw engulfing his country: “We are racked with so many problems—kidnapping in the south, terrorism, drugs.” He said that drug money had corrupted even the smallest unit of local government, the barangay. “The barangay captains connive or coöperate or extend assistance to terrorists and drugs,” he said. “And that will be the start of our perdition and our agony.”
He had a new narcolist, which he had checked twice for accuracy. During the campaign, Duterte had promised to end crime and drug abuse in three to six months, but now he threw up his hands as he pleaded for more time. “Maybe another six months,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea that there were hundreds of thousands of people already in the drug business.”
He turned to Sekkingstad and assured him that his captors would be held accountable. “I assure you,” he said. “When the time comes, I will inform you. I will just inform you that we have been able to catch up with them.” His casual tone belied a menacing subtext.
“Your travails in life are over, until such time that we get the one true justice.” He paused, then said, “We will give them that, if that is what they want.” ♦
by Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forumwww.eastasiaforum.org
In 2017, the world’s attention turned to Cambodia for all the wrong reasons.
Phnom Penh City
When Cambodians went to the polls to elect municipal councils in July, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) saw a substantial boost in its support, particularly in the rural areas long considered a stronghold of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The local results were seen to put the CNRP in a competitive position in the national election scheduled for July 2018.
Rather than prompting the government to become more responsive to the concerns of disaffected voters, the 2017 polls became the trigger for a brazen crackdown on the opposition, the press and civil society. The CNRP has been dissolved in a controversial court ruling, and its leader Kem Sokha has been jailed on trumped-up charges of treason. Media outlets such as the respected Cambodia Daily newspaper and independent radio stations have been shut down. The government is intimidating the largest and most vocal NGOs.
As Astrid Norén-Nilsson writes in this week’s lead article (which is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead), the ongoing crackdown marks no less than ‘the endpoint of Cambodia’s era of electoral democracy — an era in which the opposition may have faced uphill struggles but was nonetheless dependably allowed to contest elections’.
Certainly, Hun Sen’s Cambodia was no poster child for democracy and good governance before 2017. As political scientist Lee Morgenbesser has argued, after Hun Sen’s rise to power in the 1993 election overseen by the United Nations, the country became a textbook case of ‘competitive authoritarianism’. This is a system in which parties and civil society are allowed enough freedom to maintain the appearance of competitive politics, but where political institutions are so rigged that the opposition has no real path to power. In this view, the mistake of the CNRP was to get too popular, to the extent that a national election victory seemed a possibility — a scenario that Hun Sen could not countenance.
The degeneration of a pretend democracy into outright autocracy also marks the failure of decades of investment in Cambodian democracy and good governance by Western governments and international organisations. It is perhaps a small sense of responsibility for the current predicament that gives urgency to questions about what the world can or should do in response to Hun Sen’s crackdown. At present, targeted sanctions seem ‘the only realistic possibility of a somewhat modified course of government action, though [they are] a highly uncertain one’, writes Norén-Nilsson.
A peaceful and attractive county side in a rapidly developing and stable economy
The note of caution she sounds is appropriate. Cambodia is no economic pariah; rather, millions of Cambodians are beneficiaries of trade with the West. As Heidi Dahles highlights in her review of the Cambodian economy, trade unions representing garment workers have spoken out against Western economic sanctions. Western governments should take such warnings seriously. Any program of sanctions that harms Cambodian export industries would only play into the hands of Hun Sen and his narrative that the West is out to undermine Cambodia. Heavy-handed sanctions not only fail to guarantee changes in the behaviour of the target regime, but can lead to isolation and economic hardship that serves nobody’s interests (the experience of Myanmar under the old military junta is a cautionary tale).
However Western governments respond, there are ultimately larger forces at work aiding the entrenchment of authoritarianism both in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. Hun Sen’s crackdown takes place in a world where authoritarian leaders are less dependent on the West for their aid and investment needs — and thus have fewer incentives to cultivate support among Western politicians by promising reforms and democracy. As Norén-Nilsson writes, ‘China’s full political and economic support enables Cambodia’s shift to autocracy, which occurs in the context of President Trump’s voluntary handing over of American regional and global leadership to China’.
Hun Sen and his CPP can expect to win the July 2018 election decisively in a contest compromised by the effective exclusion of the largest opposition party. By closing off avenues for peaceful opposition, Hun Sen has thrown up hazards for Cambodia’s future. As we have learned from the fall of autocrats from Indonesia to Egypt in recent decades, when struck by crises dictatorships can prove surprisingly brittle — and efforts to unseat them typically lead to large-scale violence.
The West will make noises about the illegitimacy of the Prime Minister’s victory, and will likely continue to apply and even extend sanctions. But Hun Sen is here to stay, and the dictates of realpolitik mean that the Western powers will soon revert to pragmatic cooperation with Hun Sen’s regime when necessary.
The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.