An architectural beauty and brutality

August 20, 2016

An architectural beauty and brutality

by Julia Mayer

Image result for angkor wat cambodia

Image result for sleuk rith institute cambodia

Can architecture help heal the wounds of Cambodia’s genocide? Julia Mayer takes a look at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s new memorial to a dark past, the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh. 

Passion and patience make strange bedfellows but are essential when best-laid plans temporarily go awry.

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) continues to work tirelessly on his ambitious proposal to reconcile his country’s brutal past with its rich ancient cultural heritage. He is trying to build a multi-purpose centre commemorating Cambodia’s genocide and is doing this in what can best be described as an uneasy present.

Facing numerous setbacks, Chhang, who is also a survivor of the infamous Khmer Rouge era of 1975-79 in which more than two million people perished, remains undeterred.

“We were planning to start building in February this year,” says Chhang. But efforts have ground to a halt. The delay is very complicated involving government bureaucracy, and we are working to resolve it now.”

Designed by the late multi award-winning London-based Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, back in 2014, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s design immediately conjures images of a distant future as well as Cambodia’s glorious past. Five towers reminiscent of Angkor Wat rise from the monsoonal mists of the famed and beautiful jungle to inspire yet another allegory — trees of knowledge and life.

“The repression of cultural knowledge during the French colonial era, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime’s ideology as a form of education meant that links to the rest of the world were severed.It was an ideology that almost destroyed us. Today we are still chained to the past, which is why for me, only education can set us free. We should not be enslaved by the past. We cannot escape it; we have to face it,” says Chhang.

The name Sleuk Rith is highly symbolic and refers to the power of leaves, explains Chhang, as he recounts a story of Cambodian intellectuals and activists secretly writing messages on dried leaves during the colonial era to preserve their knowledge and culture.

Image result for Sleuk Rith Institute

The symbolism runs even deeper.

There are distinctive parallels between the ancient regional tradition of meticulously writing Hindu then later Buddhist texts on palm leaves, sastra, to the hundreds and thousands of leaves of paper filled with forced confessions delivered under unabated torture, to reams of survivor testimonies painstakingly recorded and collected by the DC-Cam team since it began its work in 1995.

Chhang is quick to mention that within the concept of the power of leaves exists another meaning — plain paper, or that critical moment before the page fills with ideas and feelings, and which allows for the possibility of new versions of the history of genocide.

“When I was growing up, there was no education, and very few had traveled outside of the country,” says Chhang.

“As a result of genocide, Cambodians are now all over the world, and I think, because of that, people have formed a new version of the history of genocide. Each person comes with a different idea, different ways of thinking and different views, so there’s no singular interpretation.”

The new building is meant to inspire reflection, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships broken by the Khmer Rouge’s near four-year reign of terror. However, unlike other memorials and in situ sites scattered throughout the country offering explicit and undeniably invaluable evidence of the atrocities orchestrated by the regime, the Sleuk Rith Institute aims to tell the same horror story a little differently.

“Many young people look at a skull, a shackle or a blood stain on a wall and feel that it is the older generation who are responsible for the mistakes made,” says Chhang.

“They see the past as remote and have problems seeing it as part of their identity. But if you come in with photography, with beauty, with dialogue, you bring them in, and they start to question.”

Reinterpreting the atrocities in any way as ‘beautiful’ immediately calls for a reevaluation of aesthetics, as does the message that is hoped to be shared and retold by others.

Sites like Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison and interrogation center codenamed S-21, and Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ where the majority of prisoners were executed, all serve as important witnesses to the past.

However, it can be argued that they elicit intense feelings of pity, shame and disbelief, which can be counterproductive when trying to understand what happened and to possibly achieve reconciliation through empathy. And not everyone can visit such places.

“The best memorials evoke reflection and commemoration, but are also living, dynamic places that engage with all generations in the community,” says Chhang.

“A memorial should be enlightening, a place where both the younger and older generation can feel comfortable learning about the tragedies of the past to find new ways to heal, and to move forward.”

Image result for Sleuk Rith Institute

The centre will not only commemorate the lives lost but also serve as a tribute to the survivors via a museum of memory. It will also be an archive of all documents about the period, a library and an international research center for genocide studies, placing the Cambodian experience in context with other atrocities still being perpetuated today despite global outcries.

While such outcries have sadly done little to lessen the frequency and the impact of genocide across the globe, the fact remains that there are survivors and with them comes the arduous and initially insurmountable task of rebuilding a stable cultural identity that helps to heal. These efforts require hope and relentless optimism.

Image result for zaha hadid

Architect Zaha Hadid

Architecturally, Zahara Hadid’s futuristic designs embody this kind of optimism, as well as the belief that the past defines the future. The future depends on it, and, so by challenging the more traditional pessimistic practices of memorialising traumatic histories, her designs reach into the future as if to show that this can be, if not already, achieved. In the case of the Sleuk Rith Institute, this can be seen in the shimmering waterways and the warmth of exposed wooden beams that evoke the image of verdant and fertile trees or the themes of the rebirth of knowledge.

By widening the conceptual space for healing, the Sleuk Rith Institute has a profoundly important role to play. It shows that heritage so unequivocally rooted in pain and shame can be transformative through an oddly unsettling yet familiar kind of beauty that has the potential to evoke much-needed empathy and compassion.Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia

“Genocide is part our identity– it is our identity. It just takes a matter of time to accept it,” says Chhang.

Time is a great healer, and after a succession of delays we can only hope that Cambodia will see a building it so desperately deserves — one that will aid a more informed idea of the past well into the future.

Julia Mayer is a Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies student at the Australian National University. She has lived in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea, and has written extensively on traditional arts, performances and cinema in the region. She is also the Asia Correspondent for Metro Magazine Australia.

A building and brutality

Don’t miss the ASEAN bus

May 14, 2016

Don’t miss the ASEAN bus Comment | The Star Online

by Dr. Munir Majid

Phnom Penh: Cambodia is now an emerging ASEAN Tiger with opportunities for investment in hotels, infrastructure, industrial estates, agriculture and tourism  and related services. Don’t miss the boat.–Din Merican

BREADTALK, a Singapore bakery, will open its first outlet in Myanmar in early 2017, in a franchise agreement with that country’s real estate giant the Shwe Taung Group. Breadtalk has spread to nearly 800 locations in primarily ASEAN countries.

A leading Singapore logistics group is looking to extend its trucking reach to Vientiane and as far as Kunming while driving also for the expansion of e-commerce across the region. Thai retail and real estate companies, such as the Central Group, have large footprints, particularly in continental South-East Asia, as they prepare and seek to tap demand and consumption from the growing and young middle classes in ASEAN.

VietJet, a low-cost Vietnamese airline, is fast spreading its wings and wants to fly all over ASEAN, using colors of bold red, albeit with a touch of yellow, made all too familiar by AirAsia.

China has a huge infrastructure development agenda in ASEAN, through the AIIB and One-belt, One-road initiatives, and through financing commitments in more focused areas such as the Mekong sub-region, the most recent, in March, being US$11.5bil in loans and credit for infrastructure under the Mekong-Lancang Co-operation framework.

American investment in ASEAN (total capital stock US$226bil) is larger than that in Japan, China and India put together (capital stock US$202bil), even if the European Union is still the largest foreign investor in ASEAN.

Japanese companies are all over the region, Toyota’s and Honda’s automobile hubs in Thailand being quite impressively well placed to take advantage of the free movement of the supply of parts under the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), of the growing market of 630 million (the third largest in the world), and of the single market and production base to export worldwide.

This is ASEAN. That frequently cited combined GDP of US$2.6 trillion, seventh largest economy in the world, poised to become the third largest, after only China and India, in 2030 or just after.

Across the region, proactive companies from within and outside ASEAN, from a range of businesses, traditional and conventional, digital and new world economy, are on the move to realise value from its growth and potential.

There are gaps and gaping holes in the integration process, including in the AEC and in socio-economic and political development, but a company or business would be left behind if it just dwelt on them.

Many Malaysian companies are of course in ASEAN and trading with ASEAN countries, in the financial services sector, in legal services, oil and gas, power, manufacturing and other businesses. However, there are also others who are not engaged and only have many complaints about the AEC’s imperfections.

Many of these complaints are not misplaced. However, in business you cannot wait for the perfect circumstances before you move. You wait and you lose all the first mover advantages. You wait and you don’t develop relationships, and it will be too late and take too long to cultivate them when the time is ripe. You take risks, calculated against potential benefits.

A bakery venturing into a rice-eating country, only just now coming out of the economic dark ages, is not something without risk. But a calculation that the mostly young people in the population of 52 million will form the basis of a growing future sophisticated demand counterbalances it.

Political change is taking place in Myanmar. It is early days. There is no clear succession plan after Aung San Suu Kyi. But is the change not irreversible? Will economic empowerment and the spread of its benefit not act as a check against any reversal?

And, coming back to the region as a whole, will not the imperfections and weaknesses of the AEC be addressed over time? Indeed they are being addressed. As ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC) chair last year, we worked very hard to obtain explicit recognition of the private sector role in the ASEAN integration process, and a hard-wiring of the collaboration in that process, rather than just top-end picture opportunity dialogues with leaders and ministers.

As a result, the AEC 2025 Blueprint made extensive mention of the role ASEAN-BAC is expected to play, in association with other ASEAN and non-ASEAN private sector councils, representatives and interested sectoral expert bodies. There are actually 19 such councils and at least 66 sectoral expert bodies.

ASEAN-BAC is already working to ensure effective representation of views in a coordinated manner to the leaders, ministers and officials. Perhaps, more importantly, ASEAN-BAC is identifying expert resources who can make their contribution in official ASEAN committees and working groups in sectors and areas of concern. This bottom-up work is perhaps more important than the big-ticket dialogues whose outcomes are often diffused and dissipated.

Therefore, working both top-down and bottom-up, ASEAN-BAC and all associated private sector groups will achieve better outcomes to address AEC shortcomings and imperfections.For example, in the vexed area of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) there is an understanding with officials to prioritise their removal in four sectors: agri-food, healthcare, logistics and retail (including e-commerce). The ASEAN Co-ordinating Committee on NTBs has to set up the four working groups to get cracking.

As another example, the proposal by the ASEAN Business Club to have a private sector Financial Services and Capital Markets expert group work with the ASEAN Secretariat could be adapted to have the experts work in the relevant committee or working group for faster financial sector integration.

All this takes painstaking work not always compensated by desired progress. There will be frustrations, even recriminations. But it has to be done. The private sector must be committed and involved, even as they complain about the many shortfalls of the AEC.

Having said all this, it does not mean companies should sit on their hands and just wait and see. Those who have not made their ASEAN move should really ponder on what they would be missing and on why those who have, have done so.Everyone is operating in the same ASEAN, warts and all. Those who are still waiting could very well miss out.

Indeed their very business will be threatened as markets become more open and competitive with a more integrated AEC – something which, ironically, they are waiting for.

Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

Cambodia : Making a Difference

March 27, 2016

Cambodia : Making a Difference

by Dr. Michael Mineham

It’s a welcome opportunity where we can do something that actually makes a difference.

This is what happened when I first visited Cambodia. I found out that I could personally pay to have landmines destroyed, along with other explosive remnants of war. Which I did. Other Australian friends are also helping out. Associate Tony Langer explains more:

Cambodia would like to present an image to the world of a peaceful, developing country – largely to promote business and tourism. And yes, this is true, but Cambodia is still one of the countries in the world that is most contaminated by the explosive remnants of war (ERW). Afghanistan and Iraq are high up on the list, but depending on the sources, Cambodia comes in at anywhere between numbers 4 to 6.

A Young Cambodian Mine Victim–Make a Difference for her

This is because Cambodia endured nearly 30 years of international and civil war, from the 1960s until 1998.Part of Cambodia’s western border with Thailand is still one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. This is the K5 minefield that was largely laid by Vietnamese forces after driving the Khmer Rouge into the mountains of the west.

The Khmer Rouge at that time also laid landmines in front of their fortifications and along strategic routes. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces estimate that on average, there are 2,400 antipersonnel mines per kilometer of this K5 mine belt.

I recently talked to a social worker who told me that in one day, in the western province of Pailin, he met three landmine victims. Each of these victims had both lower limbs blown off by landmines. But get this. The lower legs of each victim were destroyed by different mines at different times.

The eastern half of Cambodia is also contaminated with cluster bombs. US Air Force records reveal that from 1965 to 1973 the US dropped 2,756,941 tonnes of bombs over central and eastern regions of Cambodia. This involved 230,516 bombing sorties, aimed at 113,716 different sites. The tonnage of bombs dropped over Cambodia was more than the entire tonnage of bombs dropped by the Allies in World War 11.

The rationale for this bombing campaign was to disrupt the Viet Cong supply lines to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But for various reasons, including jungle foliage and soft ground in the rainy season, up to one third of these cluster bombs failed to explode on impact and they still remain in the ground, fully armed, waiting for a second chance.

Well, I obviously knew that I couldn’t go out on my own and dig up and remove this explosive stuff by myself. But I knocked on doors, and was admitted as a Volunteer Assistant to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. My job was to help shoot videos and help with CMAC publicity. But along the way, I found that I could pay for one of CMAC’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams.These are 3-man teams that respond to emergency finds of explosives.

This cost 5 thousand dollars over a 3 month period, and I was funding the removal and destruction of unexploded ordnance found outside of the capital city, Phnom Penh.

Cambodian Landmine Museum

It’s largely forgotten that areas around and inside Phnom Penh were the final battlefields between the Khmer Rouge and the government forces of Lon Nol in 1974-1975. The CMAC HQ in Phnom Penh is itself on a former battlefield that was cleared before construction could begin.

This fighting didn’t involve only an exchange of small arms fire and a few rocket propelled grenades. This was war with all of the mechanized might of the 20th century. The Khmer Rouge was then fighting with Russian T54, T55 and T57 battle tanks. These tanks were firing 100mm rounds. Khmer Rouge rockets included the Russian and Chinese 122mm and 130mm long range variety.

On the Lon Nol side were American tanks and really big artillery that included 105 and 155mm howitzers. Not to mention US bombing support 3 times per day from F111s, Phantoms and T28 jets based in Vietnam and Thailand.

Well, the team that works to clear areas surrounding Phnom Penh is called Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team 6. During the period of my support, this team cleared 20,073 m2 of mines and UXO during 86 response calls. The actual numbers of items found and destroyed included 6 antipersonnel mines and 6 antitank mines. I pressed the button to destroy one of the antipersonnel mines, and I also saw some of the antitank mines destroyed. I watched as another one was cut in half to extract the explosives and recycle them as new demolition charges.

Along the way, the team also found and destroyed 2,520 pieces of UXO. This figure was inflated by the discovery of over 500 explosive-tipped heavy anti-aircraft rounds. But, well, those are the figures, and that’s what I paid to have destroyed.

I’m tempted to say that this was a real blast. I felt so good about paying to have all this stuff blown up and recycled, that I later signed up for a second and a third 3 month period to pay for EOD Team 6.

CMAC keeps meticulous records, and the grand total of the ERW that I funded to have removed and destroyed was 5,310 pieces of UXO, 13 antipersonnel mines and 15 antitank mines.

Watching mines being destroyed is better than watching a fireworks display. There’s an enormous brutality about these explosions. Fireworks are pretty, yes, but there’s something that’s also monstrous and hugely destructive about watching military explosives tear the earth and the sky apart.

Also, through my contacts with Australian Vietnam Vets working in Cambodia, I was part of an operation that found and destroyed an unexploded 120mm mortar shell, and a Russian PMN-1 antipersonnel mine. The PMN-1 is also called the Black Widow, because it contains around double the amount of explosive (200 gramrs) used in most other antipersonnel mines.

Both of these remnants of war were found only a short distance away from a school in Pailin province. The school grounds themsevles had been cleared of explosives, but the surrounding area was a former battlefield. There can’t be too many countries with schools in the middle of former battlefields. But, well, this is Cambodia. Before we cleared the area, you wouldn’t have wanted to kick a ball over the school fence and then go running around looking for it. The PMN-1 mine was easily within the distance you could kick a ball.

I later met a 14 year old boy who had stepped on a PMN-1 mine while cutting wood to help extend his house for visiting relatives. He lost both his legs and one arm, and was lucky to survive. This kid has become a spokesman for the anti-landmine movement. He said, “Even though I’ve lost my legs and an arm, I still have my voice to speak out against landmines.”

Well, I can’t claim to have saved a single life with my clearance work. Maybe I’ve just saved a few dogs and cows from the explosive stuff that I’ve had cleared. I’ll never know. But it doesn’t really matter because I feel so good about what I did.

If you spend time in Cambodia, you’ll meet landmine victims yourself. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of amputees per capita of population in the world.

I met a man (the brother of my car driver) who had survived the explosion of a Khmer Rouge rocket propelled grenade. He then received a blood transfusion at a jungle aid station, but the blood he received was contaminated with the AIDs virus. The compensation/assistance he’s received from the government? Zero.

Another story I came across was the winner of the only ever Miss Cambodian Landmine contest. Her first prize was supposed to consist of money for a university education, and a new prosthetic leg from Norway. But the money for her education didn’t turn up, and the new leg, when delivered, didn’t fit.

Most Cambodians in the big cities seem to be largely indifferent to landmines and UXO and the plight of victims. Comparatively few Cambodians contribute money to mine clearance or victim relief, and there seems to be a collective mentality of waiting for overseas funds to fix the problem. Well, so be it. But just a few dollars can make a big difference.

And making a difference, as I discovered, can really be a very simple undertaking. Who knows – like me, you’ll never be sure if you’ve saved anyone. But you’re going to feel really good about helping to make at least part of the world a better place.

The Way Forward for Cambodia

February 3, 2016

The Way Forward for Cambodia: Reform  is the way to win voters’ trust

by Scott Rawlinson

Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Cambodians

Samdech Techo Hun Sen

Ideally, Cambodia’s major political parties (CPP and CNRP) would work together for the national interest rather than focusing solely on personal party gain. Unfortunately, Cambodia’s recent political past, and more presently with the decline of the “culture of dialogue,” highlights that the staying power of such coalitional-type agreements is limited.–Scott Rawlinson

Over the next two years Cambodians will have the chance to decide the future direction of their country and policy at both the sub-national and national level. 2017 will see commune (sangkat) elections, with national elections the year after.

In the lead up to both votes, two key questions are worth asking.First, what do the two major parties offer the electorate and their constituents? Second, what areas should these parties reform to maintain their longevity, especially the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as it looks to retain government?

Instead of resorting to violent crackdowns and clampdowns of civil and political liberties, the CPP and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) should maximise their appeal to voters by leveraging decentralisation and deconcentration reforms to create public policy that directly meets the needs of the people rather than a select few business tycoons or elites.

Voters are more likely to be content with and support the party, group, or individual that develops and implements policies that provide jobs, food, housing, security and healthcare. Furthermore, if councillors understand that their positions and livelihoods are at stake thanks to the introduction of competitive democratic local elections, which research suggests they are, then there should be little need to rely on authoritarian controls.

The last elections, in 2013, were marred by allegations of electoral fraud and partiality on the part of the National Election Committee, which has since undergone reforms as part of the ‘culture of dialogue’ between the long-ruling CPP and opposition CNRP.

In spite of CNRP leader Sam Rainsy being stripped of his position in Parliament following the issue of an arrest warrant related to an old defamation case, it’s clear the CPP and CNRP will be the main players in the forthcoming elections

Rainsy’s court summons of November 16, 2015 is one of three charges currently levelled against the veteran opposition leader, with the moves judged as politically motivated by members of the CNRP, who feel that the CPP is trying to weaken them before elections.

Against this backdrop, the build-up to the elections, including, unfortunately, the use of violence, has already begun.In November 2015, two Parliamentarians from the CNRP were beaten outside the Parliament following a pro-CPP protest asking for the removal of Kem Sokha from his position as Vice-President of the National Assembly. Furthermore, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned of the likelihood of civil war if the opposition were to win the next election, something flatly denied by the CNRP.

However, violence, be it verbal or physical, actual or prophesised, is unlikely to bring or encourage the national stability that the ruling party claims to protect and cherish. Instead, it engenders discontent, dissatisfaction and resentment.

While caused by a swathe of factors, the impressive showing of the CNRP at the 2013 National Assembly elections should act as a warning to the CPP that around 44 per cent of the voting population are either unhappy or disagree with ruling party policy and governance of the country.

What the CNRP offers the electorate

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was the result of a 2012 merger between the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP).

The CNRP has eight major policy points ranging from salary promises, medical care and youth education. Many of these are “populist”. For instance, the CNRP and its predecessors have been very active along the border with Vietnam.

While the party argues that it is publicising Vietnamese encroachments into Cambodian land, which the Phnom Penh government either fails to report or is complicit in, critics and opponents claim that opposition activists are stoking anti-Vietnamese Cambodian nationalism, xenophobia and even outright racism (see here also). However, there are positive signs with a new focus on party discipline and changes in decision-making processes.

Appeals to Cambodia’s vast army of garment factory workers via wage increases are also populist. Policy makers need to tread carefully here. If wages rise too high and too quickly, and Cambodia no longer produces desired profit margins, then companies and owners may shut up shop and find other locations where labour is cheaper and margins more lucrative.

Unlike the CPP, the CNRP lacks a record of governance, making it difficult to judge exactly how it would function in government. The capacities of its leadership and the party’s internal institutional strength are when compared to the CPP, relatively unknown.

Leading expert Chheang Vannarith argues that the opposition has insufficient leadership capacity and institutional strength to govern alone. As such, the CNRP needs to get its house in order instead of wasting time and energy attacking the CPP.

Recent events also point to discontent within the CNRP. In October 2015, former CNRP councillor Ken Kosal rallied villages to prevent Sam Rainsy from entering a pagoda — apparently motivated by Sam Rainsy’s and the CNRP’s failure to deliver on policy promises.

The party also needs to maintain its internal unity. The CNRP’s two pillars do not always see eye-to-eye, including the leadership. CNRP Vice-President Kem Sokha has been excluded from political negotiations over Cambodia’s future between Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen. The ruling party has capitalised on these internal divisions, playing Sam Rainsy and his deputy leader against each other. The CPP knows that a divided opposition in disarray is less of a credible electoral threat come 2017 and 2018.

What is quickly apparent is that in the event of a CNRP victory at the next National Assembly elections, those in Parliament will be unable to govern effectively without the assistance of bureaucrats previously loyal to the CPP. However, the CNRP should not be idle, and the situation isn’t hopeless. The party should focus its attention on its grassroots politics, raise its reputation and standing for good governance and build from there.

What the CPP offers

While not entirely the result of proactive government policy, Cambodia’s economy has grown rapidly. It is undeniable that the CPP has brought a measure of security and development. And that is a definite strategic advantage.

However, serious issues remain. These include the poverty rate that, as of 2011, was at around 19.8 per cent according to the United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia (UNDP). This figure compares favourably with 50 per cent in 1992, but work still needs to be done. There is also growing inequality and rising income disparity.

Furthermore, as Cambodia moves toward becoming a lower-middle income country its receipt of Official Development Assistance (ODA) will decline as it becomes more economically self-sustaining.

There are positive signs. Over recent years, the Cambodian government has implemented a number of economic reforms and initiatives. Chea Serey, the Director-General of the National Bank of Cambodia, forecasts that continued economic growth should lift Cambodia into the company of lower-middle income countries in 2016.

Meanwhile, the CPP offers the benefits of incumbency and experience of government, albeit one tarred by instances of corruption, repression and lack of transparency. In the context of Cambodia, incumbency gives the CPP the advantages of access to state largesse, close ties between the party and the state, complex networks of patronage linking the centre to the periphery, and control over the police and the military.

The strength of the party borne out of decades of fighting is also well-known. While Cambodia is often bemoaned for its “poor institutional capacity”, it should be considered that informal ties between the centre and the localities, political elites and business elites are equally relevant when considering the party’s ability to govern and capacity to provide services, development and infrastructure to sub-national units. The CPP’s incumbency means that it is in the strongest position to provide services and successfully implement public policy, including the ongoing decentralisation and deconcentration reforms.

Currently, changes in the CPP reflect less deep structural shifts, and more an appeasement of key figures after the passing of former party president Chea Sim early in 2015. As is the case with the CNRP, more attention needs to be focused on ensuring the accountability and responsiveness of councillors and party officials at the grassroots.

Corruption also remains a major problem. Freedom House argues that the impact of the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) has been limited, with many in the ruling elite abusing their positions for the accumulation of personal gain. Their report also pointed to cases of nepotism. In particular, it highlights how several CPP party members were forced to resign in order to allow the sons of high-ranking party members to take up positions.

Currently, the CPP is in a strong position, though not as strong as after the 2008 national elections when the party swept most of the seats in parliament. However, it now seems unlikely that Cambodians in the age of social media and YouTube are likely to be deterred by threats of violence.

The willingness of millions of Cambodians to vote for the opposition is testament to this, as was the almost year-long political stalemate. Violent crackdowns are unlikely to bring about lasting political solutions.

What role can decentralisation reforms play?

Decentralisation aims to encourage accountability, responsiveness and bring about a genuine devolution of power. Ensuring that party policy and actions reflect the expectations of decentralisation and the needs of constituents should be the overriding priority for Cambodia’s political parties.

Electorate contentment and councillor re-election are more likely if elected councillors, the overwhelming majority of which are affiliated with the CPP, can demonstrate their responsiveness and sensitivity to constituent needs, and concentrate on downward rather than upward accountability

The competitive element of local elections should serve as a yardstick. Working Papers from the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI) clearly illustrate that voters are knowledgeable about the expectations of their local commune councillors, as well as the capacity to remove them by popular vote at the next election if they fail to deliver on policy promises.

Fully embracing the decentralisation and deconcentration reforms could benefit the ruling party, discourage abuses of power by its officials and representatives, and force councillors to focus their efforts where it counts – at the grassroots. The competitive local elections could provide a marker to evaluate the responsiveness and accountability of local officials, remove those that are unpopular, and praise and reward those that serve their constituents commendably.

The reforms have seen the capacity of district and provincial levels of government increase, in order to make the processes of service delivery and development projects a smoother project. However, there is general agreement that sub-national authorities don’t have sufficient funds to carry out their functions to the best of their ability.

The fact that sub-national units do not raise revenue through taxes and only receive a small portion of the national budget with which to do their work can create problems. These include a reliance on party or individual patronage, which tends to reinforce a top-down relationship between national and sub-national units, undermining councillors’ accountability to their constituents.

As such, further fiscal decentralisation should be seriously considered so as to provide greater local flexibility in development and infrastructural projects, as well as downward accountability of councillors to constituents.

What does the future hold for Cambodia?

The literature on political party organisation would lead us to believe that thoroughgoing institutional change is rare and potentially destabilising. Instead, it would be more realistic to work for gradual change.

Ideally, Cambodia’s major political parties would work together for the national interest rather than focusing solely on personal party gain. Unfortunately, Cambodia’s recent political past, and more presently with the decline of the “culture of dialogue,” highlights that the staying power of such coalitional-type agreements is limited.

Additionally, a significant percentage of the population are under the age of 30. This demographic lacks the same level of personal and political loyalties to the CPP of older generations.An example is the forming of new political parties, like the Cambodian Youth Party (CYP), which looks to appeal to and harness the goals and aspirations of a generation of younger Cambodians.

While the CPP and CNRP remain the parties most likely to amass the vast majority of votes, it is these new parties that, if they can establish a core voter base and institutionalise their organisations, may present a future challenge to the up-to-now dominant parties.

Cambodia is changing rapidly and not just thanks to social media. The two country’s two major parties must adapt to this changing society or perhaps lose out to newer parties that do appeal to these new aspirations and desires.

By focusing on the grassroots and decentralisation’s core values of accountability and responsiveness, the CPP and CNRP can help maintain their relevance in Cambodia’s fast-changing political landscape. Additionally, they can show themselves to be more than organisations that benefit only a select few.

Scott Rawlinson received his MA in South East Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is currently a Fellow, and Coordinator for Fellows, at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS), Phnom Penh. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute.


Going viral in Cambodian Cyberspace

November 19, 2015

COMMENT: Times are changing in Cambodia as a result of peace, Din Merican at his UC Officepolitical stability and economic development following the formation of the Royal Government in 1993 (although the civil war did not end until 1997). Phnom Penh and the provincial cities and towns are now bustling with economic activity.

Education is a top priority – at least in the private sector – and the availability of the internet is helping in the process of intellectual development of the Cambodian people. Students I meet at the University of Cambodia have e-mail, Facebook and Twitter accounts and enjoy internet facilities on campus. Twenty-four-hour internet services are available and shops, cafes and hotels provide internet and wi-fi services.

Students have hand phones to communicate via internet. But internet penetration is second lowest in ASEAN after Myanmar. That means that HE Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen and his Cabinet colleagues and local officials must rely on people to people dialogue, the television and the mainstream media to explain government policies.

Hun Sen at UNGAWith regard to social media, credit must be given to the Royal Government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen for making this possible.  Cambodia has a young population (average age below 25) which has forgotten what their parents and elders went through during the period of the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror and the years of international isolation and the sacrifices they made to end the civil war and achieve peace and reconciliation. As a result, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his colleagues face the challenge of managing expectations.

Based on my discussions with graduate students at the Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, I know that the Royal Government is not taking its people for granted. It is creating jobs and business opportunities for Cambodian SMEs, and attracting foreign direct investments into the country. For this to continue, Cambodia needs political stability.

So in my view, adversarial politics is not the way forward for Cambodia in the short term to medium term. What Cambodia needs is a people-centered government. Samdech Hun Sen does not deserve the treatment he received from Cambodians in New York when he attended the UNGA last October.

There is no censorship of information. However, it is natural for any government to ensure that the internet is not used to deliberately disrupt public order and create unrest. Cambodia is no exception. –Din Merican

Going viral in Cambodian Cyberspace

by Sebastian Duchamp

Social media is on the rise in Cambodia, and it may just mark the beginning of the end of the systemic culture of judicial impunity, as well as the long-dysfunctional democratic system.

A Popular TV Station @ University of Cambodia

To shine some context on the matter, social media vigilantes have been busy linking brutal attacks on two lawmakers outside the National Assembly building in late October to military units and Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) loyalists, specifically the Naga Youth Federation; the sworn protectors of Prime Minister and CPP leader, Hun Sen, who had earlier been protesting outside the house of Kem Sokha, the Vice President of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

With many Khmer ‘netizens’ taking to social media to identify more suspects – as there were clearly a large number of protestors – and linking them directly to Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, it appears that the authorities may be acting in the interests of the people; something rarely seen in Cambodia.

In early November, prosecutors arrested three Cambodian soldiers who turned themselves in for taking part in the attack, and announced they would not be looking for any more suspects.  The same prosecutors – who are rarely said to react without being paid – have recently decided to reverse this decision and have announced, based on the circumstantial evidence revealed by the viral video, that they would continue the search for suspects linked to the beating.

Modern Cambodian Monka

All of this begs the question, just how much of a threat does social media pose to Hun Sen’s control of the state apparatus that has blessed him with almost uninterrupted rule over the country since 1979?

The short answer, is that it represents perhaps one of the biggest challenges in recent times to the strongman’s rule, and largely serves to discredit his public announcements that there would be civil war if the CNRP won.

Although there doesn’t seem to be any reliable statistics, I did some number crunching based on available resources.  Out of a population of 15 million, a good estimate of the number of Facebook users would suggest that there are somewhere between 1.4 and 1.5 million Cambodian monthly active users, a 12 per cent increase in users between 2014 and 2015.  The vast majority of users are between the ages of 18 and 25, and are increasingly using more affordable mobile devices.

There are three reasons why this huge increase in interest and availability of social media. Firstly, it encourages a new level of trust – all but obliterated under the Khmer Rouge regime – and open discussion among the Cambodian people.  The confident growth of societal stability represents a healthy sign for any peaceful transition of power, which is undoubtedly a key precursor for any stable democratic regime to prevail.

Two young boys surfing the internet and chatting online at an internet shop, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Southeast Asia

Two young boys surfing the internet and chatting online at an internet shop in Phnom Penh city. This is a positive development for Cambodia.

Secondly, given that print media (which rarely makes it to rural areas anyway, where much of CPP’s support lies) and traditional radio or television broadcasting companies are largely owned by CPP-linked elites, unregulated outlets such as Facebook pose an unprecedented forum for voicing discontent.  This poses quite the thorn in the side of Hun Sen.

Both major party leaders, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, have official pages on Facebook, and it is fairly clear who has more support.  If ‘likes’ are anything to go by, Sam Rainsy clearly eclipses the incumbent Prime Minister; leading by 500,000 total page likes – which have risen at a fairly constant rate week-on-week – to 1,820,588 at the time of writing.

Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen, currently at 1,330,541 total page likes, is trailing his opponent in his Facebook escapade.

Most dubiously, according to Facebook’s own statistics, Hun Sen’s total page likes increased by an erratic 14 per cent in a week.  The peak happened to coincide with the Myanmar elections on 8 November, although it is unclear what to make of this.  What is clear, is that it looks more like a heartbeat surge in popularity, compared to the more credible steady climb on Sam Rainsy’s page.

What is also clear, is that Hun Sen appears to have been greatly saddened by recent protests on visits outside the country to New York and Paris, which many speculate may have precipitated the protests and beatings against CNRP lawmakers.

The Prime Minister has recently been taking a more personal tone against his rival in his latest address to the Khmer diaspora in Paris that even went as far as reflecting on his offspring’s superior academic achievements in comparison to those of Sam Rainsy.  In Cambodia, school grades, of course, don’t always reflect academic ability; and are often an indicator of how much one is willing to bribe their way to success.

Whether these likes are those of genuine supporters, imaginary friends, or those engaging in schadenfreude can only be a matter of speculation.  After all, what’s more enjoyable than watching a well-entrenched strongman implode under the sheer weight of his own ego?

Thirdly, and most importantly, unlike the unfortunate Hun Sen, the CNRP knows how to use social media effectively.  The professional and often emotionally-charged videos (that are often accompanied by a soundtrack that would make John Williams blush) and photos that Sam Rainsy regularly posts on social media stand testament to this.  They also reveal a politician standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Khmer people; something that  Hun Sen repeatedly fails to pull-off.

On a side note, in reaction to the NLD’s sweeping victory in the Myanmar general election, one Khmer netizen replied to a post by opposition leader Sam Rainsy on his Facebook page, “…regrettably that Cambodia country is seems to be late and have to wait for 2018. Cheer! [sic]” 2018, of course, refers to the year of the next general election.

The mood in Phnom Penh, which already has seven CNRP lawmakers compared to the CPP’s five, is that Hun Sen may finally lose the 2018 general election, and with the cat out of the bag so to speak, his loss may be definitive this time.

Sebastian Duchamp is a pen name. The author is a scholar and keen observer of Southeast Asian politics and society.

Please note that my view is that a true scholar does not need to hide under a cloak of anonymity. He should be open and impartial and should not  take a position which is obviously pro-CNRP and Sam Rainsy.–Din Merican 

Editor’s note: On 16 November Cambodia’s opposition leader Sam Rainsy was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and now faces a potential two-year jail term upon his return to Phnom Penh from South Korea for an older charge of defamation.