Friday, January 20, 2017


The Real Danger of Cambodia’s ‘Gay King’ Episode

A recent incident could have broader implications for democracy and human rights in the country.
On December 25, a photograph appeared on Facebook of the Cambodian King’s face photoshopped onto an image of gay pornography along with the message: “Cambodia King is gay.” The following day, the government announced that it was investigating three suspects, two Cambodian and one Thai, who are believed to have produced the image.
Now, it is not uncommon for rumors about King Norodom Sihamoni’s sexuality to be picked from the Phnom Penh grapevine for conversation. And when describing the monarch, journalists rarely exclude the phrase “lifelong bachelor” or “music-loving bachelor,” or something to that effect, perhaps with the same intent that British tabloids once employed the euphemism “confirmed bachelor” with a figurative nod.
For example, Patrick Winn, senior Southeast Asia correspondent for GlobalPost, left little room for subtlety when he wrote in a 2011 article that “gay Cambodians note with a wink that the king is a style-conscious bachelor and former ballet instructor in Paris.” Sihamoni’s own father, the late Norodom Sihanouk, once said that he “loves women as his sisters.” (In 2004, while monarch, Sihanouk felt it necessary to answer rumors about his own sexuality by publicly stating: “I am not gay, but I respect the rights of gays and lesbians. It’s not their fault if God makes them born like that.”)
But whether the king is gay or not is beside the point. What really matters is, first, what is says about LGBT rights in Cambodia and, second, how the government responds: if it will attempt to redefine what can and cannot be said about the monarchy.
For starters, consider the response of Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak: “The king represents the whole nation and they are insulting the king, which is like they are insulting the whole nation.” Straight away, the line of reasoning is clear: to be called gay is to be insulted. The government’s view, then – how else can it be seen? – is that homosexuality is a slur. How does this sit in a country that, according to some reports, is gradually changing its attitudes toward homosexuality? Not well, one might argue.
It has also been a rare instance when the government and opposition see eye-to-eye. Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former secretary for the king, now a high-ranking member of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), publicly backed the investigation, telling local media: “Sexual preferences should be left private, so I think it’s a violation and I would support an investigation — for any individual not only the king… It is a matter of honor and dignity.”
As for the government’s response, an investigation has been launched into the photoshopped image, though it isn’t clear yet what law the suspects are accused of breaking. Unlike neighboring Thailand, Cambodia has no lèse-majesté law. Article 7 of the constitution states the King “shall be inviolable,” though such hazy language might even be a detriment in this case, and Article 502 of the criminal code only proscribes punishments for insulting civil servants and elected officials.
Indeed, shortly after the image went online, Khieu Sopheak was quick to point out that “in Cambodian constitutional law, there is an article that stipulates that the King cannot be harmed. But no other articles mention that it is illegal to insult the King, so it depends on the judicial system.” And, as legal expert Sok Sam Oeun told the Phnom Penh Post on December 26,“if there’s no punishment in the law, we cannot punish anybody. Legally, we cannot extend the definition [to include] another crime. The law should be clear.”
But the law isn’t always clear in Cambodia. Indeed, the investigation was launched despite the fact that no official complaint had been made about the image, as Sopheak told the media, which contradicted his own decision not to investigate death threats being made against CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha only weeks earlier because of the lack of complaints. So already one can see the blurring of the judicial process or, at least, the government’s approach to such matters.
If those responsible for the image are to be punished, one avenue is that they will prosecuted for defamation. For this to happen, the King must first decide whether he thinks he has been defamed or not. If he does, then I can say with much certainty that those responsible will be prosecuted, since defamation lawsuits are rarely acquitted in Cambodia, especially when high-ranking people are said to have been defamed.
If the King does not believe he has been defamed, then the question is whether the government will take the matter into its own hands. This appears to be the case. Khieu Sopheak told AFP: “We have got orders to arrest them. If we don’t take action against them, more people might follow their act.” What’s more, an article by VOA Khmer quoted Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin as saying that the ministry will look into whether a new law is needed that specifically targets people who defame the King – so lèse-majesté will come to Cambodia.
This should raise the hairs of anyone concerned with freedom of speech in Cambodia. What’s worse is that some of the voices whom one would turn to for reassurance have not been quite as reassuring. Sam Chankea, spokesman and senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, who himself was convicted of defamation in 2011, was quoted by the Cambodia Daily as saying that while he didn’t know of anyone being punished for insulting the King, the people involved in the image should be punished – though not as seriously as those in Thailand.
What are we to make of this? A spokesman for a prominent human rights group, who has tasted the bitterness of being convicted for airing his opinion, thinks it is acceptable for people to be punished when they have violated no crime whatsoever.
It is a possibility then that one image, however distasteful, will be the harbinger of lèse-majesté to Cambodia. This is unsettling by itself, to be sure, but consider the broader political implications. Unlike his father, Sihamoni has been largely absent from politics. If, like me, you consider constitutional monarchs to be at their best when silent, this might be a good sign. But it isn’t. Rather than silent, a better adjective is acquiescent. Here is what Son Chhay, an opposition member of parliament, told the Associated Press in 2011: “I think we can use the words ‘puppet king.’ His power has been reduced to nothing.” This quote appeared in an article headlined: “Cambodia’s king a ‘prisoner’ in his palace’.” Since his ascendency in 2004, the monarch has largely been held to the whims of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
As anyone aware of Thai politics knows, lèse-majesté has been politicized. The same could happen in Cambodia if such a law is passed. The government is already on shaky ground. In October, Cambodia became the first country to acknowledge Thailand’s request to extradite Thai citizens accused of lèse-majesté. What’s more, the government has made the political links to the photoshopped image. VOA Khmer quoted Khieu Sopheak as saying that two of the suspects were opposition activists.
What we are left with then is that a silly, infantile image, which really should have been ignored, could provide one more reason for the Cambodian government to crack down on freedom of speech. However distasteful the image was, the backlash could certainly be more unsavory.

A bitter feud in P Vihear

Phak Seangly and Ananth Baliga, 18 Jan, 2017
Villagers travel to patrol farmland to stop Rui Feng Sugar Co from clearing it in
Preah Vihear province’s Tbeng Meanchey district. Heng Chivoan

Poeun Cheun woke before sunrise on December 12 – a Monday – and after preparing a quick breakfast, she headed to her rice field a couple of kilometres away.
The 45-year-old widowed mother of four had been gone from the Tbeng Meanchey district farm for fewer than 24 hours, but now found herself staring at a plot of land she didn’t recognise, the vast majority cleared and ploughed by strangers in the middle of the night.
“They tried taking my land in 2015, but I stopped them. In early 2016, they tried again, but last month, they succeeded,” she told reporters earlier this week, her voice rising in anger.
Cheun is a Kuoy ethnic villager from Brame commune, one of hundreds of locals who have woken up to the same sight or actually witnessed what they claim are their traditional lands cleared by the Chinese-owned Rui Feng Sugar Co.
Rui Feng, along with four subsidiaries, was granted close to 40,000 hectares of land in 2010, and are sinking about $360 million into their operations billed as one of Southeast Asia’s largest sugar production facilities.
In 2012, the firm, acting with the blessing of local authorities, began clearing vast tracts of land across Tbeng Meanchey and neighbouring districts for their sugarcane plantation, drawing immediate, if seemingly futile, opposition from local villagers like Cheun.
On patrol

Cheun is one of about 40 villagers who left their homes on January 1 and began camping near their farmland – a renewed, and so far ineffective, bid to prevent the Rui Feng tractors from clearing it.
While the temporary camp they have constructed is haphazard – little more than a rickety wooden shed and a large table for communal meals – the villagers’ patrols are conducted with precision.
Every day, about 10 villagers climb onto a tractor-pulled wooden cart to patrol the vast sprawl of the economic land concession. The patrols, which take place twice a day on varied routes, are occasionally rerouted when a tipoff from villagers sends them hurrying towards a potential confrontation.
On Monday afternoon, about 30 villagers set off in the direction of a community members’ farm where they planned to thwart a company attempt to plough.
The two tractor trailers carrying them bounced and creaked as they made their way along narrow dirt roads flanked by 2-metre-high sugarcane stalks.
After turning onto a sturdier gravel road, the villagers spotted a tractor moving in the opposite direction. It was headed for a strip of land right under their noses, only a few hundred metres from camp.
The drivers immediately turned the two trailers filled with protesters and began a low-speed chase. On reaching the clearing, three tractors were already at work ploughing the land, while a nearby excavator was clearing shrubs.
Villagers jumped out of the trailers and advanced towards two Chinese supervisors and then things unfolded in what community representative Tep Tim told reporters has become predictable fashion.
The Chinese supervisor, who did not respond to attempts to ask questions, called in the protests on a walkie-talkie and asked the tractor drivers to temporarily stop clearing.
“We dare not go against ethnic villagers,” said one of the drivers, his face covered with a scarf and dark sunglasses. “I understand them because we are the same blood, but we work only on the order of the company.”
Attempts to negotiate with the firm’s staff quickly proved futile – most are Chinese and do not speak Khmer.
For the next hour or so, aside from raised voices and a few wild gesticulations as both sides demanded the other leave, little happened.
“The district authorities will come and two things can happen they will ask both sides to leave or they will ask the company to continue,” Tim said.
As if on cue, an hour after the standoff began, Uk Phalla, a district agriculture department official, arrived on the scene with two armed military personnel and proceeded to ask both sides to leave immediately.
Villagers wait for company tractors to leave the area after confronting company
workers in Tbeng Meanchey district. Heng Chivoan
The tractors rolled away, while villagers waited to make sure they won’t return.
“This will happen again tomorrow,” Tim said, her voice a mixture of resignation and hopelessness. Around the corner and away from the villagers, Phalla tells reporters he is tired of having to break up these standoffs, saying it has almost become a full-time job.
“The villagers stop the machinery. We tell the company to go away to avoid a standoff or violence. Then we coordinate with the villagers to calm them,” he said. “This has become our daily work.”
Futile pursuits

Villagers at Tbeng Meanchey say they will continue to protest the clearing for as long as it takes. But, three weeks in they are unable to hide the air of despair that has settled on the camp.
In two other districts in Preah Vihear – Chheb and Chey Sen – similar scenes have unfolded, with similarly disappointing results.
Attempting to cover a broader area with a more decentralised approach has been a conscious change of strategy, according to Tim, the community representative.
In previous efforts over the past four years, villagers from all the affected districts would congregate at one location to protest the clearings. The company’s widening of operations across the three districts has demanded the new approach.
“The activity of the company has spread out. So we have to also,” Tim said.
However, keeping up with the vast resources of Rui Feng is not easy. When villagers stop tractors at one location, the behemoths simply move to another and continue the clearing.
Villagers say they want to keep their protests peaceful, but violence nearly erupted in Chey Sen district earlier this month. Video of the incident that surfaced online shows company employees advancing toward villagers with wooden clubs.
While local authorities managed to calm the situation, the display had its intended effect, with protesters in the district taking a break from the campaign and returning to their villages.
While Tim has no kind words for the Chinese firm that is “taking their land from them”, most of her ire is directed at local authorities – specifically those in Tbeng Meanchey.
Ang Cheatlom, executive directive of local NGO Ponlok Khmer, said authorities have long ignored the concerns of ethnic villagers, even if they have documents from commune officials showing they use the land for agriculture. None possess the land titles that would satisfy higher authorities.
While admitting the newest campaign has yet to show any results, Cheatlom insists it will take a long and sustained effort to reap any benefits.
“I believe that the villagers can get some success, if not 100 percent, if they keep protesting for a long time, like up to one year,” he said.
But there is so far little give on the central assertion of both company officials and local authorities – that the villagers are farming on what is state land.
“The company only comes to invest, not to cause a dispute,” Kor Yang, a representative from Rui Feng told Post reporters this week.
It was a simple case, he explained. Authorities had already dealt properly with those possessing land titles, while those still protesting have no legitimate claim.
“This problem happens every day and is caused by the ones who have no documents,” he said.
District Governor Ung Vuthy echoed Yang almost word for word.
“What other basic proof can we ask of villagers to solve their problem?” he asked, referring to villagers’ lack of acceptable land documents.
Community members pass the time at a small shelter built to keep watch on the fields.
Villagers take turns staying at the shelter in an effort to stop the land clearing. Heng Chivoan

He maintained that authorities would continue to engage with the villagers and that Provincial Governor Un Chanda planned to meet them later this month – but only to reiterate the province’s position.
A life altered

What saddens Tbeng Meanchey widow Cheun more than the loss of her land, she says, is what appears to be an end to her community’s way of life.
Before the clearing began, the ethnic minority population relied heavily on the forest rich in resin trees, wildlife and vegetation – not only for their livelihood but daily sustenance.
In a last-ditch bid to protect their way of life, the group applied to district authorities for a community land title in 2015 to protect nearly 2,200 hectares of forested area they used.
Three neighbouring communes followed suit.
The community is still awaiting a decision on the land title, but that has not deterred the firm or officials from green-lighting the continued clearing of the land.
“They did not recognise the communal land map and asked the commune to make it again,” Ponlok Khmer’s Cheatlom said. “But, the authorities do not pay attention to communal land, because they don’t get benefits like when they help the company.”
If Cheun expected her December encounter with the company to be her last, she was wrong. Over the past four weeks, Rui Feng has attempted to use planting machines to plant sugarcane seedlings on her land.
Last Saturday, she planned to confront them the same way she had on multiple previous occasions, by standing in front of the tractors and asking the drivers to stop.
But this time, her friend Sing Set, a fellow community member and farmer, jumped between her and the tractors, daring the drivers to run her over.
“I had to actually pull her away after she sat down in front of the machinery,” Cheun said when reporters spoke to her days later.
For Set though, her actions are the only possible recourse.
“Yes, I would have died. That is the only way people will know about the suffering of ethnic people here,” she said.

Scores of adults, children released from Prey Speu

Kong Meta and Erin Handley, 18 Jan, 2017

Detained people sit around the grounds of the notorious Prey Speu centre situated
on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in 2015. Pha Lina

The Ministry of Social Affairs yesterday claimed it had released scores of people from the notorious Prey Speu detention centre into the hands of NGOs, including children who had been detained without their parents for months on end.

Director of the municipal social affairs department Sorn Sophal said 58 people were handed over to Mith Samlanh, Plan International and Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) on January 16, though the latter two NGOs denied having accepted detainees.

“The youngest one is 5 years old ... We rounded them up off the street because they were beggars and homeless and we sent them to Prey Speu,” Sophal said. “Now we found the NGO for them to stay with; now we integrate them.”

Im Sreypao, a project reintegration manager at Mith Samlanh, said they had taken in 39 people – 10 of them unattended children. She said nine boys immediately left the centre without taking any of the prepared food. “We didn’t even get a chance to find their parents for them; they wanted to leave, so we cannot force them to stay here,” she said.

She added they had given medical treatment to an 8-year-old girl who had developed a skin infection at the centre after she was plucked from Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich more than two months ago, and also helped her find her parents.

Sreypao said the organisation had reunited 12 families with their relatives and provided them with food and counselling. “I saw they are very happy and they smile when they got out of the centre,” she said.

“Now they have freedom; now they can live as humans.” But at least 19 people remain unaccounted for, as Plan International and PSE said they did not take in any people from Prey Speu.

Iman Mooroka, spokesperson for UNICEF, said “children should not be separated from their families except under extreme circumstances”.

“The streets are clearly no place for children, however, taking children off the streets and placing them in an institution not suitable for children is not the solution,” she said.

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson slammed the continued involuntary detention of Phnom Penh’s so-called “undesirables”.

“There is something fundamentally wrong with the brains of the officials overseeing this process of arrest and detention that they think it is somehow OK to separate kids from their parents and force them to stay in this hellhole of a centre.”

Sovantha files suit against Rainsy

Mech Dara, 18 Jan, 2017

Thy Sovantha speaks to the press outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last year.

Social media celebrity Thy Sovantha yesterday filed a defamation complaint against exiled Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy for alleging she took a $1 million bribe from Prime Minister Hun Sen to fund her activities.

The accusations, aired by Rainsy at a forum in Paris on January 14 that was broadcast online, stem from online chats purportedly between the premier and Sovantha, which were leaked to the latter’s Facebook in November.

Responding directly to the claims for the first time, the 21-year-old yesterday said her account on the social media site had been hacked and the messages fabricated.

“My Facebook page was stolen on November 24,” she said by phone.

“Straight away I filed a complaint with the Ministry of Interior. All of the leaked messages were created by a hacker ... There is nobody providing me money.”

In her complaint, released in local media, Sovantha accuses Rainsy of breaching Article 305 of the Cambodian Criminal Code and demands $250,000 in compensation.

The former opposition activist turned ruling party favourite – who led a months-long campaign attacking CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha over an alleged affair – said Rainsy’s comments were false and had damaged her reputation.

“His remark had an impact on me. He used words that attacked me, saying that samdech prime minister had bribed me with $1 million to do bad activities and to lead demonstrations against the CNRP and other things,” Sovantha said.

“These allegations contradicted reality, so I decided to file a complaint.”

In the messages leaked to Sovantha’s Facebook account, users referring to each other as “grandpa” and “grandchild” discuss undermining the CNRP, among other topics. One message has “grandpa” saying he has provided $1 million to fund “grandchild’s work”.

A separate batch of messages, leaked in a video, were said to feature Sovantha colluding with the premier’s second son, Hun Manith, to discredit Sokha.

However, Sovantha said both exchanges were made up as part of a “set-up” to give critics the pretext to attack Cambodia’s leaders and thus provide a boost for the opposition.

Officials with the Ministry of Defence, where Manith is a high-ranking official, never denied the authenticity of the recordings, but dismissed them as a personal matter.

Since fleeing to France in 2015 to avoid arrest for a two-year conviction related to a revived defamation case brought by former Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong, Rainsy has been hit with several lawsuits, all widely considered politically motivated.

Via email, Rainsy who was officially barred from the country late last year stood by his comments.

“I confirm to have said that Hun Sen had proposed to give 1 million USD to the girl, based on a message from Hun Sen in person broadly posted on Facebook, which has not been denied by the prime minister or his entourage,” he said.

A Horrific Crime Runs Rampant in Cambodia
Is Foreign aid to blame?

Though millions of people visit Cambodia’s historic sites each year, like the ancient city of Angkor or the brutal killing fields and S21 prison, there is another market that has been attracting Western tourists to this country: the infamous illegal child sex trade industry of Cambodia, which draws in millions of dollars from tourists, has been a stain on the nation’s image for years now.

Although illegal in Cambodia, underage girls are openly bought and sold in the major cities as prostitutes right under the nose of the law. It is almost impossible to get into a tuk-tuk without being offered marijuana, cocaine, or “boom boom” (local code for prostitutes). The extent to which the government and law enforcement agencies ignore this trade that includes involuntary prostitution and the selling of children for sex is appalling, especially considering the promises they make to eradicate this trade from the country.
The reason I wasn’t ready to believe the government wasn’t doing anything against the almost-open trade of underage prostitutes was the sheer presence of aid agencies and NGOs in Cambodia. The director of the organization I was working at told me there were about 20 other NGOs that do the exact same thing he does – provide shelter and education to orphans and poor children – all within a five-mile radius. Their goal, he said, was to ensure these kids receive an education and aren’t drawn into child prostitution and drugs at an early age.
These were only small organizations, run by Cambodians with the help of foreign funding. The International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) reports that there are approximately 4593 registered NGOs and aid agencies in Cambodia and most of them are working mainly to combat child trafficking and prostitution. These organizations bring in millions of dollars for this purpose.
UNICEF will be spending almost 26 million dollars in Cambodia this year. Agape International, the largest organization fighting child trafficking, raised approximately $4 million for its operations. The government reports that they are indeed working with these agencies and yet no real impact was evident.
The US Department of State put Cambodia in a Tier 2 watchlist rather than downgrade it to Tier 3 only because the government was said to have a plan that would potentially minimize illegal sex trafficking. This plan, however, hasn’t been implemented to date.
So why isn’t the government actively fighting these crimes that bring such a bad name to their country? In other words, what does the government stand to lose by eradicating these practices?
Problems Create Cashflow
A report by the US Department of State estimates that between 30 to 40 percent of the Cambodian government budget comes through foreign aid. Additionally, there is an inflow of millions of dollars thanks to donations to NGOs there. Countries such as China and Australia have pledged millions of dollars to Cambodia.
There are thousands of people who visit the country each year to volunteer in one way or another. These NGOs and volunteers not only bring in their expertise to help combat social and developmental challenges but also contribute a lot towards the tourism sector which employs a huge bulk of the population and is the main source of foreign exchange for the government. The expats who live there to do this aid work also have a purchasing power most Cambodians do not enjoy. As such, they are one of the main contributors to the national tax coffers. The government officials themselves make a lot of money from these people since the corruption rate is high – which I witnessed when the immigration official asked me for a $50 “processing fee” before stamping my passport.
Government Intervention?
Imagine this was not the case: that the government enacts policies that would close the loopholes which allow these illegal activities to happen, develop education policies, and work to help the orphans in the country by bringing about a well-organized child protection service by which law enforcement officials actively pursue traffickers and peddlers. What would happen if they did that?
Not only would the amount of foreign aid received be reduced as the country moves towards self-dependency, but they would also lose a lot of their tourism money currently coming through the high presence of aid workers and volunteers who wouldn’t otherwise be there to visit the Angkor Wat or the killing fields. Many Cambodians are employed by these agencies and receive higher wages than the average government worker. The government would have to find a way to compensate for all this lost cash flow.
So, wouldn’t it be fair to conclude that the government might be taking a back seat because if they work towards a solution to these problems they would have a lot to lose financially?
Sacrificing the Long-Term for the Short-Term
Obviously, child sex slavery needs to be stopped. The government, although it made promises to do so, hasn’t taken efficient steps in implementing their solutions. Getting in the way is Cambodia’s reliance on foreign aid and the perverse incentives this creates. However, while it is clearly beneficial to receive this aid in the short-term, doing so is only harmful to long-term growth. The country needs to realize that while aid money can sustain them it cannot bring about a positive impact on their economy.
If Cambodia wants to transition from an aid-reliant country to a self-sufficient country, a return to the rule of law is necessary. This requires clearly defining and actually upholding child trafficking laws rather than drawing a blurry line to keep stakeholders and international watchdogs happy. Doing so will not only stabilize the country but also attract business investment currently shying away from Cambodia’s reputation, thereby promoting real, long-term growth.

Pradyot Sharma is a freshman undergraduate at Troy University, Troy, Alabama Studying Economics with a minor in Philosophy.


Why Did Cambodia Just Cut US Military Drills?

Phnom Penh’s official reasons for the nixing do not pass the smell test and raise troubling questions.

On Monday, news surfaced that Cambodia had suddenly cut its annual joint military exercise with the United States, which had already been in the planning stage and would have entered its eighth iteration this spring.
Temporary suspensions to bilateral military engagements do occur from time to time. But the bizarre reasons provided by Phnom Penh for this particular move have understandably failed to pass the smell test of most observers and raised the very suspicions about Cambodia’s alignments that the government was looking to avoid.
According to The Cambodia Daily, U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said on Monday that the United States had received word from Cambodia “postponing joint military training exercises in 2017 and 2018.” Other activities, including military exchanges and training programs, were not affected.
But it was the explanation from the Cambodian side about the temporary suspension that really raised eyebrows. Cambodian Defense Ministry spokesman Chuum Socheat said the exercise was called off in order to focus on more pressing matters. Elaborating on those pressing matters, he said that the military would have to go join the national police for an ongoing six-month anti-drug campaign, and that troops would also be needed in preparations for commune elections to be held on June 4 “to protect the good security and public order for the people.”
For those familiar with U.S.-Cambodia defense relations, that sure sounds like poppycock. As I’ve detailed previously, the annual exercise in question, Angkor Sentinel, is rather modest in scale and hasn’t exactly left the Cambodian military overstretched when it has occurred over the past seven years — including in 2013, when Cambodia held its last national election (See: “US, Cambodia Armies Launch Military Exercise”). And even if resourcing were an issue, it isn’t exactly clear why the suspension would be in effect through 2019, rather than the exercise simply being postponed to several months later when more military personnel would be freed up.
With those domestic reasons not sufficing, observers cannot be blamed for turning to grand designs tied to Cambodia’s foreign alignments to explain this sudden move. Some wondered whether Phnom Penh was sending a message to Washington about its democracy and human rights concerns in Cambodia, which have only risen with the opposition crackdown underway as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen approaches 2018 national elections that are likely to be closely contested.
It’s worth noting, though, that while the United States has downgraded military ties with Asian states before due to rights concerns, Washington had in fact been signaling through the end of last year that it was possible to have a good overall bilateral relationship with Cambodia in spite of disagreements in that area.
Others speculated that this might have to do with China. China and Cambodia have been strengthening their military ties – with the two sides holding their first-ever naval training exercise at the end of last year – and Beijing has been stepping up its assistance to Phnom Penh as the election approaches (See: “China, Cambodia to Launch Major Military Exercise ‘Golden Dragon’”). Might Beijing have leaned on Phnom Penh to nix drills with the United States in exchange for that assistance?
The idea of China making such deals with Cambodia has been taking root over the past few years, fueled by incidents such as ASEAN’s 2012 South China Sea breakdown in Phnom Penh during Cambodia’s chairmanship (See: “ASEAN’s Soul Searching After Phnom Penh”). And given the fact that Cambodia was becoming part of the U.S. Army’s future plans for the region, with its initial selection for prepositioning of equipment and the planned integration of Angkor Sentinel into the Pacific Pathways program, that might have raised some concerns in Beijing.
If this cancellation is indeed connected to Cambodia’s deepening ties to China, that would be troubling for Phnom Penh even if it is far from surprising. While all Southeast Asian countries desire good relations with Beijing, that ought not to come at the expense of them pursuing alignments with other nations as well. Indeed, it is this balance of relationships that help smaller countries like Cambodia maximize their security and prosperity while minimizing infringements to their autonomy. In that sense, putting too many eggs in the Chinese basket risks jeopardizing Cambodia’s own national interests even if it preserves those of the ruling party.
Chuum Socheat, the spokesman, denied that the move had anything to do with Cambodia’s relationships with the United States and China. But given the reasons he had actually given for the move, observers can be forgiven for not believing him. Apart from the substance of the matter, one hopes that the next time Cambodia announces such a move, government officials will at least spend a bit more time coming up with better excuses to avoid raising the very questions they may not want to answer.