The Portrait of a strong leader and tough guy–Rodrigo Duterte of The Philippines

March 12, 2018

The Portrait of a strong leader and tough guy–Rodrigo Duterte of The Philippines

Letter from the Philippines

by Adrian Chen

Image result for rodrigo duterte and hun Sen

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.”


Image result for rodrigo duterte condemns Obama


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.


Image result for rodrigo duterte and donald trumpThere 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 Esquire Philippines, told me, “There are no slow news days anymore in the Philippines.”

“Your X-rays are kind of depressing, so here’s Susan and me in front of the Eiffel Tower.

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.

Image result for Fidel Ramos on Duterte

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.

Image result for Clarks Air Base

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.”)

“He’s pulled out the H.R. file! This is it, folks—the Atomic Performance Review!”

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.

“I still think what unites us is crisper and more refreshing than what divides us.”

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.

“I said no. Hamsters are a gateway pet.”

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.

“In case you hadn’t noticed, we can all fly.”

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?”

“You need to stop focussing on getting drunk and start focussing on being drunk.”

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.”

“I’m not wasting my life online—I’m building my brand.”

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.

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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.

“Fall makes him sad.”

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.” ♦


This article appears in the print edition of the November 21, 2016, issue, with the headline “The Tough Guy.

  • Adrian Chen joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016.

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The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

February 8, 2018

The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

by Author: Editorial Board, East Asia 

In 2017, the world’s attention turned to Cambodia for all the wrong reasons.

Image result for Peaceful and stable Cambodia

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’.

Image result for hun sen with donal trump

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.


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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’.

Image result for hun sen and xi jinping


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.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Also read:

The South China Sea and ASEAN Unity: A Cambodian Perspective

February 3, 2018

The South China Sea and ASEAN Unity: A Cambodian Perspective

by Cheunboran Chanborey

Mr. Cheunboran Chanborey is currently a PhD student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. His main areas of his interest include Cambodia’s foreign policy, East Asian security and international relations.

Prior to pursuing a PhD degree, he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia and taught at the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh. Mr. Chanborey holds an MA in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, in conjunction of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He also holds an MA in Diplomacy and International Studies from the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, Rangsit University (Thailand), as well as a BA in International Relations from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

Image result for Cambodia and ASEAN

Since 2010, the South China Sea has reemerged as one of Asia’s hotspots due to increasing military tensions between China and other claimant states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. Diplomatic stalemate between ASEAN and China as well as within ASEAN further exacerbates the uncertainty. The South China Sea has become what The Economist called a “sea of troubles.”1

Clearly, China is being assertive in the disputed areas. Its massive land reclamation, the establishment of new military landing strips, and the deployment of anti-craft missiles are strong evidence for such a judgment. Moreover, despite the absence of major military clashes, China has been assertive in using Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships, civilian fishing ships as well as mobile oil explorations to assert and defend its maritime territorial claims.

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China’s growing assertiveness resulted in numerous confrontations with ASEAN claimant states. For instance, confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal escalated in 2012. In May 2014, China moved a large oil ring into waters near the Paracels, which Vietnam also claims. This resulted in confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese civilian and military ships. In March 2016, Jakarta-Beijing bilateral relations soured due to alleged encroachments by Chinese fishing boats into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Decoding China’s Assertiveness in the South China Sea

There are many attempts to explain China’s military and diplomatic posture in the South China Sea. Donald Emmerson argues that China’s increasing assertiveness derives from Beijing’s three fears and one megaproject. 2 The three fears include: (1) the repetition of humiliation that China experienced throughout the 19th century by Western powers—Britain, France, and the United States—that arrived in China in ships across the South China Sea, (2) attempts by external powers, the United States in particular, to contain the rise of China to assume its rightful place in the world, and (3) the disaffection of the Chinese over Beijing’s handling of the country’s territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, since becoming China’s new leader in November 2012, President Xi Jinping declared the China Dream as a way to achieve a “rich and powerful country, the revitalization of the nation, and the people’s happiness.”3 The goal is to exert China’s primacy in Asia and the world. To this end, offshore dominance, especially in the South China Sea, may be viewed by Beijing as a requisite step forward toward the goal.

The US Involvement in the South China Sea: Constructive or Divisive?

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Another development that must also be considered while discussing about a more assertive China in the region is the American “pivot to Asia,” which has been seen, at least in the eyes of Chinese strategists, as an attempt by Washington to encircle China.

Controversially, at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared publicly that the United States has a national interest in the freedom of navigation and flights in the South China Sea. Since then, military tension has been unabated, and the Philippines and Vietnam have been more assertive both in their bilateral negotiation with China and in using ASEAN as a framework to deal with China. Arguably, Manila and Hanoi might share the same conviction that time is actually on the Chinese side and that it is the right time to push for more compromise from Beijing given the fact that China is not yet a full-fledged superpower and, more importantly, the United States is actively reengaging in Asia. As a result, the South China Sea has always been a hot agenda item in ASEAN meetings and ASEAN-related meetings since 2010.

Although the United States does not exert any claim, it has interests in the South China Sea, which include, but not limited to: (1) freedom of navigation; (2) commitments to its allies in the region, and (3) attempt to prevent regional hegemony.4 To protect its interests in the region, the United States has strengthened its security cooperation with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore. It has also increased joint military exercises with the regional countries and operated maritime patrol aircraft to challenge China’s assertiveness in the disputed area. The US engagement in the South China Sea, in turn, gives ASEAN claimant states leverage in pursuing a firmer stance toward China, which is not supported by ASEAN non-claimant states due to their desire to maintain close ASEAN-China relations. As a result, ASEAN’s division on the issue has been evident.

Hun Sen’s Rebuke Against “Unjust Accusations”

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Inevitably, disagreement within ASEAN on the South China Sea caused a political crisis during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 as the foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN’s history. The failure—known in ASEAN circles as the Phnom Penh Fiasco—has allegedly been interpreted as the result of enormous Chinese pressure on Cambodia: Beijing allegedly blocked any mention of the South China Sea in the joint communiqué.5

More recently, the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June 2016 in Yuxi, China was concluded without a joint press conference by the co-chairs of the meeting—China and Singapore, ASEAN-China Coordinator—due to a lack of agreement on the South China Sea. Following the meeting, it has been reported that, under Beijing’s pressure, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar forced the recall of the ASEAN joint press statement by withdrawing their support on the statement, which was to be released separately from the host, China.

Earlier in April 2016, China has reached a four-point consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos that territorial disputes in the South China Sea were “not an issue between China and ASEAN as whole.” Subsequently, Beijing has been accused of dividing ASEAN to preempt any ASEAN consensus on the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the Philippines’s South China Sea case against China just issued on July 12, 2016.

In defending his country’s position, Prime Minister Hun Sen recently remarked that “Cambodia has again and again become a victim of the South China Sea issue because of unjust accusations.”6 He added that the Phnom Penh Fiasco took place not because of Cambodia. The reason was, as he said, “They bullied Cambodia,” referring to pressure from two ASEAN claimant states—the Philippines and Vietnam—to incorporate their strong wordings in the joint communiqué. He also blamed some ASEAN claimant states for “trying to drag Cambodia into the dispute,” saying that “They have a dispute, but they get Cambodia to be responsible.”

Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea is aimed at: (1) continuing implementing the declaration of conduct (DOC); (2) urging ASEAN and China to make the utmost effort to finalize the code of conduct (COC); and (3) encouraging countries concerned to discuss and resolve their issue because ASEAN is not a court. Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that, “ASEAN cannot measure land for them…the South China Sea is not an issue between ASEAN and China.”

With regard to the PCA’s verdict, Prime Minister Hun Sen has revealed a clear position that Cambodia would “not make any joint declaration to support the decision of the court.” The Philippines has gone too far in unilaterally bringing the South China Sea to the court without seriously anticipating the action’s implications on ASEAN and ASEAN-China relations. Hun Sen made it clear that, “It is the Philippines who sues China. Let the Philippines deal with it. Why call for ASEAN’s support?”

Prime Minister Hun Sen also called upon major powers outside the region to refrain from “pouring the oil into flame and try to keep detente in relations on the South China Sea.” He referred to “one of the major powers outside the region”—widely taken to be the United States—has lobbied ASEAN members to jointly support the PCA’s ruling.

Cambodia Between ASEAN and China

Clearly, the South China Sea constitutes today’s most difficult foreign policy dilemma for Cambodia since ASEAN and China are both crucially important for the kingdom’s security and economic development. Since becoming an ASEAN member in 1999, Phnom Penh has attached a great importance to the integration of Cambodia into the regional grouping. In fact, ASEAN has always been the cornerstone of Cambodian foreign policy. Cambodian policymakers were convinced that ASEAN would be a crucial platform through which their country could safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as promote its strategic and economic interests.

Prime Minister Hun Sen reminded again four main factors encouraging Cambodia to join ASEAN. First, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference would help Cambodia, which is sandwiched by its “two giant ASEAN countries—Thailand and Vietnam,” to address its external security challenges. Secondly, a consensus-based ASEAN would ensure that “Whether the country is rich or poor, big or small, every member has one voice equally.” Thirdly, Cambodia would stand to benefit from ASEAN in terms of “economic construction, socio-economic development and connectivity.” Finally, Cambodia would benefit from ASEAN’s “big diplomatic outreach to partners.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recall of reasons for Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN can be understood as an expression of doubt in contrast to his past conviction on the role of the regional organization. First, it seems that Hun Sen’s confidence in ASEAN has gradually faded due to the grouping’s ineffective response to the Cambodia-Thailand border conflict between 2008 and 2011. In response to Cambodia’s urge for help, what ASEAN and its member states did was the encouragement for Phnom Penh and Bangkok to bilaterally resolve the dispute. In fact, the border dispute was never tabled as an agenda of the ASEAN Summits until Prime Minister Hun Sen broke protocol, possibly out of his frustration, and raised the issue at the ASEAN Summit in May 2011.

Second, his statement related to the fact that Cambodia has been bullied by some powerful ASEAN members implies his unease at ASEAN’s inability to enforce the principle of non-interference and equal sovereign rights among its member states.

Last but more importantly, China, not ASEAN, has become Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and biggest economic benefactor. China is also the biggest provider of military assistance to Cambodia. Noticeably, China’s military assistance increased remarkably at the time when Cambodia badly needed to build up its defence forces during the Cambodia-Thailand border dispute. Moreover, as for policymakers in Phnom Penh, China is not a threat but a protector of Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, ensured on many occasions by Chinese top leaders.

In this context, it is important for regional leaders and policymakers to reflect the reality of Southeast Asia and how to move forward. Firstly, it is not unreasonable to agree with a Cambodian scholar, Chheang Vannarith, who argues that, “If the regional and external countries keep pressuring the non-claimant states like Cambodia to build a united front against China, ASEAN will be disintegrated”.7

Secondly, ASEAN-China relationship is not only about the South China Sea. There are many areas of cooperation that both sides stand to benefit from, including trade, investment, tourism, regional connectivity, and joint efforts in fighting against non-traditional security issues.

Thirdly, it is unpractical to consider ASEAN a dispute-settlement mechanism. It has never fulfilled that role even in disputes between its member states. Like Cambodia and Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines tried to initially resolve territorial disputes through bilateral mechanisms but eventually brought the issue to the International Court of Justice. At its best, what ASEAN can do is to be a dispute-avoidance mechanism.

Lastly, there is a dangerous risk of internationalizing the South China Sea, particularly by dragging in external powers. By so doing, ASEAN will lose its neutrality in its relations with major powers outside the region. Moreover, ASEAN’s members might be drawn into great-power competition, which will eventually put ASEAN’s unity at risk, for ASEAN members have different interests in the South China Sea and see the role of external powers through different lenses.

End notes:

1. See The Economist, “The South China Sea: Sea of Troubles”, 2 May 2015. Available at:

2. See Donald Emmerson, “Why Does China Want to Control the South China Sea”, The Diplomat, 24 May 2016. Available at:

3. See William A. Challahan, “The China Dream and the American Dream”, Economic and Political Studies 1(2014):143-160.

4.See Ronald O’Rourke, “Maritime Territorial and Excusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress”, CRS Report, 31 May 2016. Available at:

5. Kishore Mahbubani, “Beijing in the South China Sea – belligerent or assertive?” Financial Times, 15 March 2016. Available at:

6. See Hun Sen’s Remarks at the Graduation Ceremony of the Royal School of Administration, in Phnom Penh, on 20 June 2016. Available at:

7. Khmer Times, “Hun Sen: Enough on South China Sea”, 29 June 2016. Available at:–enough-on-south–china-sea/


Cambodia is systematically squashing all forms of dissent

December 24, 2017

Cambodia is systematically squashing all forms of dissent

Unions, NGOs and environmental activists are all feeling the squeeze

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“THE logical approach now”, reckons Naly Pilorge of LICADHO, a Cambodian human-rights watchdog, “would be to continue attacking.” She is talking about a crackdown on all forms of political dissent launched in August by Hun Sen, who has been prime minister for 32 years and says he intends to remain in the job for another decade. Not content with securing a ban on the main opposition party, he is now persecuting unions, NGOs and anyone else who criticises the government.

The scale of the crackdown is unprecedented, says Ou Virak, a political analyst who once worked at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, which the government recently threatened to close. Gatherings of more than five people are banned. All non-governmental groups and associations need to notify local officials before organising any kind of activity, according to a directive from the Ministry of the Interior disseminated in October.

Legislation on unions, passed almost 20 months ago, makes re-registration almost impossible for the handful of independent outfits that exist in Cambodia. Without proper registration, in turn, they cannot represent their members in disputes at the country’s Arbitration Council. Efforts to resolve matters at the council are required legally before a union can strike.

Sar Mora of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation, which has more than 4,000 members, describes baser forms of intimidation too. At meetings government goons take photographs and ask for copies of the agenda. Police watching the union’s rackety offices burst in if they see too many scooters parked outside. “Sometimes we call a meeting and workers are afraid to come to the meeting. We lost membership. And it is so hard to organise new members now,” he explains.

Environmental activists challenging the looting of natural resources are another target. The loss of tree cover accelerated more in Cambodia than in any other country between 2001 and 2014, the result of illegal logging, gold-mining and the seizure of land from villagers for rubber plantations. But groups that point out such destruction, and the harm it causes locals, risk official ire. Two members of Mother Nature, a grassroots environmental network, were arrested in September after filming ships they suspected of involvement in illegal sand-mining operations.

Even reporting on resistance to the crackdown is difficult. In the past four months the government has closed two American-funded radio-news services, dozens of broadcasting frequencies and one of the country’s best independent newspapers on trumped-up tax charges. Many correspondents have fled; others nurse cheap beers in Phnom Penh’s bars and fret over finding new employment. They are the lucky ones. Two former radio journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, face 15 years in prison for supplying information which “undermines national defence”. The voices of ordinary Cambodians are kept quiet too. Social-media posts calling for political change land their authors—frequently students—in prison.

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Many of the organisations and individuals targeted by the government have had links of some kind with America. The United States is therefore making more of a fuss about the repression than Japan and the European Union, other big donors to Cambodia. On December 6th America announced visa restrictions for anyone deemed to be “undermining Cambodian democracy”. This follows a move last month to cut funding for Cambodia’s election committee.

Mr Hun Sen has little reason to worry. The economy is thriving, tax revenues are soaring and friendship with China provides diplomatic and financial comfort. (Chinese businesses, the largest source of foreign investment, had pumped a cumulative $12bn into the country by the end of 2016.) His party will romp home in elections in July. He may even feel secure enough to loosen up a bit before the vote.

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In the long run, however, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson of Mother Nature is optimistic. Membership of his “ragtag army” increased by a third after the arrests of those filming the sand barges. Cambodians may not have any outlet for displeasure with the regime, but that does not mean they are blind to, or tolerant of, its faults.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Dark days”



Trump’s Reagan-like Relative Moralism

November 10, 2017

Trump’s Reagan-like Relative Moralism

Fortunately, he has yet to notice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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President Donald Trump and Hungary’s Strong Man Viktor Orban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cambodia: Democracy Update

December 9, 2017

Cambodia: Democracy Update

by Sorpong Peou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cambodia remains an attractive tourist destination

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

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

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