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Cambodia's Commune Elections: A Barometer for 2018
Three things to watch in Cambodia’s commune elections that will impact
next year’s parliamentary race.
By Marc Pinol May 24, 2017
May 20 marked the beginning of a race toward the commune elections in Cambodia, to be held on June 4. But this race will not end the day that citizens cast their ballots; this is a protracted race that will end in July 2018, when the general elections will take place.
Within roughly 12 months, Cambodian citizens will be called to vote on two occasions. Local leaders will be elected in the commune elections, while the next prime minister will be chosen in the highly anticipated general elections, which will either extend the 32-year mandate of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or give way to a new era of leadership by the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). With the imminent commune elections, Cambodian citizens have in their hands a valuable opportunity to evaluate the performance of the two parties with a real chance to lead the country for another five years. In other words, besides the importance of the results themselves, the commune elections will be a clear indicator of what the nation could see in the general elections in 2018.
Four years ago, the unexpected outcomes of the general elections — which left the CPP with a narrow margin of 13 seats ahead of CNRP, an unprecedented result since Hun Sen has been in power — shook up the domestic political scenario. Political predictability could no longer be assumed. The results strengthened those advocating for a power shift, as many started perceiving it as a real option, but it also raised the alarm within the CPP, which saw its leadership threatened for the first time ever. The momentum of the CNRP caught the CPP by surprise and political crisis followed when the opposition lawmakers boycotted the National Assembly — the CNRP strongly refused to accept the results due to accusations of ballot rigging. The crisis was sealed as soon as King Norodom Sihamoni approved the electoral results.
The Commune Elections as Indicator
Under the current system of administrative divisions there are 1,646 communes, or clusters of villages, which are part of the districts that form Cambodia’s 24 provinces. According to the figures published by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), the CPP currently controls 62 percent of the communes. It is worth noting that at the time of the last commune elections in 2012, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party had not yet merged to form the current CNRP.
The fact that commune elections will be held just one year ahead of the general commissions makes them the perfect barometer of a potential shake up in the future general elections, considering that the government does not carry out official surveys on voting intentions or the profile of the electorate. Therefore, with the commune elections being a fairly reliable political prediction tool, the results raise several points of interest.
Can the CNRP Score a Repeat Performance?
First, will the CNRP be able to maintain the trend witnessed in the 2013 elections and reduce the ruling party’s margin of victory in the communes, if not surpass the CPP altogether? In its short life since it was founded in 2012, the party has gone through remarkable internal reforms starting in the aftermath of the 2013 general election. To begin with, the two top leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, have been facing numerous defamation suits. Sam Rainsy, who has spent the past few years in self-imposed exile, resigned from the leadership of the party in February after the government hinted it would change the laws governing political parties, and assume the right to dissolve parties whose leaders have committed criminal offenses. Kem Sokha, the new opposition leader, is a well-known figure in Cambodian politics, but not as popular as Sam Rainsy. The ruling party learned this by experience — and its own mistake when Hun Sen himself wrote to the King asking for a pardon of Sam Rainsy — four years ago, when they did not expect that the CNRP leader would bring a landslide of votes with him upon his return from exile. Given the current situation, even with regular appearances by Sam Rainsy in the media, the CNRP will need to do its best to avoid the disenchantment of some of its voters.
Kem Sokha’s mild manners and focus on the rural areas might be a determinant factor due to the imbalance between urban and rural areas under the current seat allocation process. On February, Voice of America published the reflections of analyst Ou Virak on this issue. Phnom Penh has seen massive influx of people from the countryside, but still has a similar number of seats compared to provinces with lower populations. “This means that each vote cast in the Phnom Penh capital is half the value of a vote cast by their fellow voters in Prey Veng province,” Ou Virak explained. “Therefore, voters in Prey Veng have more weight in parliament than those in Phnom Penh. This is an imbalance and injustice for the Phnom Penh dwellers.” According to the policy think tank Future Forum, Phnom Penh should get 15 seats, and Prey Veng only eight.
Under the current representation rate, though, both the CPP and the CNRP are aware of the importance of rural votes. Traditionally, the CPP devotes major efforts to promoting and enhancing its image among non-urban areas to attract votes, a practice that has been highly effective up until now. The results map of the last general elections clearly show how the CNRP won in Phnom Penh and surrounding provinces, while CPP votes came from all the other provinces. Approximately 80 percent of the Khmer population is rural, and such areas are the most vulnerable, with 20 percent of its citizens living below the poverty line or being at high risk of falling into the poverty trap.
New Voter Demographics
The second factor worth watching in the commune elections is the profile of the electorate. The need for reforms to tackle electoral imbalance reflects a social reality and transformation. Understanding how demography changed between 2013 and 2017 (and 2018) complements the overall social analysis. The Cambodian population is mostly young or very young: 31 percent is just 14 or younger, and the median age is 24. Such facts were well noted in the 2013 elections, as 36 percent of the voters were 30 years old or younger, and 1.5 million were first-time voters. Along with the outcomes, the behavior of the youth will be another focus of interest, which could give clear hints of their degree of political engagement and capacity to defy the status quo.
Naturally, this sector of the population presents unique characteristics. One remarkable trait that all parties must reckon with is that the youth tend to be more informed, and they have more awareness of the highly sensitive issues the country is facing, such as corruption scandals, land grabbing, deforestation, social injustice, and the polarization of society between “haves” and “have-nots.” In this sense, Cambodia’s young people bring maturity to the system, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will overcome their fears and make their voices loud enough to be heard.
All political parties, no matter what color they represent, need to consider and understand the dynamism of the demography, but it would be a mistake to assume that the population’s low median age alone will lead to a change. Even with the undeniable fact that the 2013 elections saw the youth voting en masse, there is the need for a combination of sociopolitical attitudes and opportunities to bring about political change. On one hand, the engagement of ]youth in politics still remains low; this may be due to negative perceptions, lack of political education, and inequality among citizens. It is undeniable that education and economics have advanced, but Cambodian society remains highly polarized between the rich and the poor, with fewer opportunities to get involved in politics for the latter. On the other hand, the youth must be provided with more information in a non-biased manner in order to promote understanding of the domestic political scenario, as well as making the system more inclusive among all sectors. One of the few ways to make this happen is through education, focusing on critical thinking and creating awareness among all of any potential options for the future of the country, including the risks derived from a U-turn in leadership.
The Social Media Boom
Third, and related to demographics, is the role of social media in Cambodian politics. This relatively new tool is available to all political parties and nearly all citizens, regardless of social class and social background. Facebook in particular is not only an entertainment tool; it has become the second most used channel to receive information. Therefore, political parties must become social media gurus if they want to gain votes, especially from the youth.
So far, both the CPP and the CNRP are heavy users of Facebook. Sam Rainsy, exiled while facing criminal charges for defamation, mostly uses social media as a tool to communicate to the masses in Cambodia from abroad. Hun Sen and the CPP seemed more reluctant to use social media at first, but given its effectiveness in reaching voters, the prime minister rapidly updated himself, feeding his Facebook wall regularly with posts about his political duties and offering live broadcasting of his public events. He soon surpassed Sam Rainsy in number of like — despite the controversy whether or not his likes were bought from abroad.
With Facebook as a form of e-democracy, new structures of interaction between the government and the electorate are created, giving political parties the opportunity to reach a much higher number of potential voters and spread their discourses. If compared to traditional mass media, social media is a two-way communication tool, and this empowers civil society by creating a new interactive streamline of information. It must be noted that even with the massive use of social media, it remains as a mere tool that, alone, does not change governments.
The majority of the population is waiting for the commune elections. Looking beyond the outcomes, Cambodia has an opportunity to show its commitment to democratization. Many see in the country an untapped pool for political change, while others remark upon Cambodia’s authoritarian manners and move toward a one-party (and even a one-man) system, which often tries to silence its critics. The forthcoming elections are the perfect scenario to see how a rapidly changing society views its leaders and gets involved into the political sphere. On their part, political parties must give credibility to the Cambodian political system by ensuring free and fair elections and a campaign free of threats that does not spread a false sense of fear of change. All political parties should clearly show their road map with a clear focus on the needs of the people, and avoid embracing the sole purpose of defeating their political counterparts.
Marc Pinol is a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and lecturer of global affairs and political science.
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Bodies of Cambodian soldiers killed in Africa return home
By Sopheng Cheang | AP May 21
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Tears were shed and the sounds of cries were heard from the families of four Cambodian soldiers who were killed by a Christian rebel group in the Central African Republic earlier this month as the bodies arrived home Sunday.
The four were among 12 soldiers Cambodia dispatched to the central African nation in recent months to join U.N. peacekeeping forces.
One Cambodian peacekeeper was killed and seven Moroccans and another Cambodian were injured in the initial ambush on May 8. Three Cambodian soldiers and one Moroccan peacekeeper were also reported missing, but the three Cambodians were found dead the next day.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the Cambodians were part of an engineering unit that was helping to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The ambush took place as the Cambodians were on the way back to their base with an escort of Moroccan soldiers.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said eight fighters from the anti-Balaka rebel group were also killed in the battle. The U.N. peacekeeping mission said the remaining attackers fled into the bush.
The U.N. mission sent a helicopter and additional troops to secure the site near Bangassou, about 474 kilometers (295 miles) east of the capital, Bangui, and were continuing to search for the missing peacekeeper, Dujarric said.
The country descended into sectarian conflict in 2013 when Muslim rebels overthrew the nation’s Christian president.
The United Nations launched a peacekeeping mission there in 2014 and now has more than 12,000 troops deployed to protect civilians from violence between Christian and Muslim factions. Some 890,000 people have been displaced inside the country and into neighboring Cameroon, the U.N. says.
The latest fighting began in February and Human Rights Watch said early of the month that at least 45 people have been killed and 11,000 displaced in attacks by armed groups that have also targeted civilians.
One predominantly Peul faction of the mostly Muslim Seleka group has been fighting since late 2016 with another faction that has aligned itself with the Christian anti-Balaka group as they vie for control of the central part of the country, the rights group said.
The official reception ceremony to receive the dead soldiers was held Sunday evening at Phnom Penh International Airport, and was attended by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior government ministers, as well as the families of the dead soldiers.
The bodies of the four were put inside a coffin covered by the Cambodian flag. Buddhist monks chanted before the coffins, with the families standing quietly.
Chhay Chamreun, the 36-year-old wife of one of the dead soldiers, said she was a shocked when she heard that her husband had been killed.
“Now I don’t know how I and my three children can survive because my entire family relied on him and now he has passed away,” she said, sobbing. “I could not sleep when I thinking about the future of my children and the expense of their studying and living.”
Read more at:https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/bodies-of-cambodian-soldiers-killed-in-africa-return-home/2017/05/21/368faa1c-3e2e-11e7-b29f-f40ffced2ddb_story.html?utm_term=.a3b8e3d862dc
China to give $240 million to Cambodia
18 May 2017 at 12:10 WRITER: KHMER TIMES
PHNOM PENH -- China has granted $240 million aid to Cambodia under agreements signed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on a state visit to Beijing.
The Khmer Times reported that Mr Hun Sen and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang signed six deals on Tuesday after a one-hour meeting to discuss ties between the nations.
In one of the agreements, Cambodia and China pledged to develop economic and technical cooperation, with China providing aid of $174 million to Cambodia this year. The same figure was given by China under a similar deal last year.
In a meeting between Mr Hun Sen and Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday, Mr Xi said the aid would help Cambodia build schools and fund telecommunication and clean water projects in rural areas.
China will also provide a grant of about $65 million to expand the capacity of Preah Ket Mealea military hospital in Phnom Penh, Mr Xi added.
Other agreements between the nations hold promise to work together on the One Belt One Road initiative, electricity networks, transport, infrastructure, tourism and establishing a station for monitoring marine environments.
The countries have set a goal to have two million Chinese tourists visit Cambodia in 2020.
Mr Hun Sen posted on Facebook to say joint efforts to fight terrorism, human trafficking, online extortion, cybercrimes and transnational crimes would be a priority.
Issues in the South China Sea would not disrupt relations between China and Asean, the Prime Minister added, saying that he would support negotiations to resolve disputes peacefully.
“Our Chinese counterparts are well prepared to provide assistance to Cambodia to develop the economy, improve the livelihoods of Cambodian people, and support Chinese enterprises.
“We also reiterated Cambodia’s commitment to the One China Policy,” Mr Hun Sen said, adding that China would help protect Cambodia’s sovereignty.
In July last year, the Chinese government also announced it would provide nearly $600 million to Cambodia for a three-year project to improve elections, infrastructure, education and the health sector.
China wrote off Cambodia’s debt of $87 million in 2015.
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Cambodia looks to China for ‘governance’ guidance
Prime Minister Hun Sen aims to emulate Xi Jinping's strong state model - with an eye on aid and assistance to further consolidate his strongman rule
When Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Cambodia last October, bringing with him a new aid deal worth US$237 million and a promise to forgive almost US$90 million in Phnom Penh-owed debts, he was greeted with open arms by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The long-serving Southeast Asian leader said that Cambodia’s recent fast development “could not have happened without the generosity of our Chinese friend.” Xi repaid the compliment, referring to Hun Sen as an “ironclad friend of China.”
While currently Cambodia’s largest foreign donor of aid and loans, China has until now been a reclusive benefactor. Unlike aid from Western nations, Hun Sen frequently notes, Chinese largesse comes with “no strings attached” – meaning Beijing does not predicate its given funds on proven progress on democracy or rights.
That has been less clear with Cambodia’s foreign policy, which increasingly reflects Beijing’s position on thorny issues like the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
As at previous Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summits, Phnom Penh was a lead voice against raising China’s “militarization” and “island-building” in the contested sea in a joint statement made after a late April summit meeting held in Manila.
Until now, Beijing has shown no desire to wade into Cambodia’s topsy-turvy domestic politics, pitting Hun Sen’s long ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) against the upstart and suppressed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
China has recently built strong ties to Hun Sen despite its past support, including arms shipments, for the radical Maoist Khmer Rouge, which fought a long war against the CPP-led government after being ousted by Vietnamese invaders in 1979.
With that painful history now mainly buried, there are signs China is dabbling again in Cambodia’s politics. In September, for example, Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice announced that China would help to “reform” Cambodia’s judicial system.
Reform is needed. A recent US State Department report described Cambodia’s courts as “politicized and ineffective”, while independent commentators have long claimed that judges are in the thrall of Hun Sen, including in recent court decisions to detain and threaten CNRP leaders and activists.
But it’s not clear to the same commentators that China is the best role model for fixing Cambodia’s broken judiciary considering its courts are even more politically controlled by the ruling Communist Party. Western governments have until now offered advice and assistance to build independent rule of law institutions in Cambodia.
“Clearly, Phnom Penh is looking away from the West when it comes to judicial reform,” said Sophal Ear, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.
Hun Sen is also looking to Beijing for pointers on managing his message. Last month, a joint memorandum of understanding was signed between the two sides in Phnom Penh to boost cooperation between their state information agencies.
Cambodian information ministry officials will travel to China on “educational exchanges” as part of the agreement. Cambodian journalists, presumably from state news services or CPP-aligned media, will also be given scholarships to study in the People’s Republic.
Critics fear the official exchanges will spell ill for Cambodia’s already stifled news outlets considering China’s sophisticated system of media censorship and control.
“Neither Cambodia nor China are known to have very strong independent media,” Sophal Ear said. “Neither Beijing nor Phnom Penh seem interested in nurturing anything more than mouthpieces for their version of the truth.”
Those ministerial level exchanges come against the backdrop of enhanced strategic ties. China vowed ahead of Xi’s visit last year to help modernize Cambodia’s armed forces through increased military aid. China became Cambodia’s top arms supplier in 2013.
Hun Sen has since distanced his armed forces from the United States, seen in the abrupt cancellation this January of a planned joint exercises known as Angkor Sentinel. Exercises planned for 2018 have also been nixed for the reason the country will be in an election cycle.
Beijing is also helping Cambodia stage the polls. China has stumped up US$11.7 million for Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) for cars, motorbikes, computers and printers for this June’s commune elections.
The polls are an important barometer of voter sentiment ahead of next year’s national polls pitting the CPP and CNRP in what is expected to be a close contest. The EU and Japan have given respectively US$6.7 million and US$1.1 million to help stage the commune polls.
While China has donated to help hold past Cambodian elections, including US$20,000 for goods needed to hold national elections in 2003, this year represents the first time it has provided more funds than any other donor nation.
Hun Sen, after years of hectoring from the EU and US on how to promote democracy and rights, is now looking instead to Beijing’s authoritarian model for advice on how to develop national institutions.
On April 11, the premier presided over a grand ceremony for the launch of the Khmer language edition of “The Governance of China”, a collection of Xi Jinping’s state building-related oratory. The book, Hen Sen said, could teach Cambodians about “good governance.”
In its coverage of Xi’s book launch in Cambodia, the state-run China Daily quoted Meas Sokunth, a Hun Sen adviser, as saying he believes China’s development is a good model for Cambodia. “The two countries have a strong diplomatic relationship and a similar culture and political environment,” he said without explaining. “That is why the Chinese experience can be applied here.”
“On a personal level, both Hun Sen and Xi Jinping likely see each other as a reliable partner … considering how [Hun Sen] is strengthening his grip on Cambodia’s fragile democracy and how power has been increasingly centralized in [Xi’s] office over the past few years,” said Miguel Chanco, lead Asean analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Xi is now the undisputed “core” of China’s leadership, a title bestowed upon him by the Communist Party’s Central Committee last October that has further bolstered his cult of personality. With Xi’s move away from the collaborative leadership style formulated by reformist premier Deng Xiaoping, some believe Xi is China’s most powerful leader since revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.
Beijing is keen to disseminate its vision for Asia’s future – and China’s role at the center of it. China’s embassy in Phnom Penh provided funds last year to establish and develop the so-called Maritime Silk Road Research Center at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, a think tank dedicated largely to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
Not all analysts agree China’s model is applicable considering Cambodia’s unique history, culture and tradition. “[But] there’s no doubt there are admirers who will ignore all that and drink the Kool-Aid,” says Cambodian-American academic Sophal Ear. “Phnom Penh seems to be enamored, but part of this could simply be acolyte behavior which might loosen the pockets of Beijing for a fistful of yuan.”
Cambodia needs the cash. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data shows that foreign aid to Cambodia – not including from China – fell by 14% last year, with inflows falling from US$970 million in 2014 to US $830 million in 2016. Analysts attributed some of that shortfall to Hun Sen’s recent ramped up repression of civil society groups and opposition CNRP members.
“Given Cambodia’s sharp swing away from the United States and towards China, it is now compelled to take any help it can get in terms of non-economic development,” opined Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University and the author of “Beyond the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.”
Cambodia’s compulsion to embrace China will become more acute if US President Donald Trump gets his way on a national budget that envisions radical cuts in assistance to the developing world. An apparent leaked US State Department document published in US media in April showed that US aid to Cambodia would be 60% lower year on year in 2018, falling from US$77.4 million to US$22.9 million
Either way, expect Hun Sen to look increasingly towards China and away from the West for cues, cash and counsel on how to run Cambodia’s national affairs.
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Hun Sen Slams Cambodia’s ‘Foreign Servants’
at World Economic Forum
Prime minister’s outburst follows warnings of war if his party loses elections.
By Luke Hunt May 13, 2017
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen brushed aside international etiquette this week and used his country’s first World Economic Forum (WEF) as a platform to justify his crackdown on political dissent and to threaten journalists who fail to toe the government’s line.
“You work for Radio Free Asia (RFA), which is a radio against the government. And you write for Cambodia Daily, which opposes me all the time,” he told the forum, adding that journalists who reported for either outlet were the “servants of foreigners.”
In a rambling speech many thought would be dedicated to Cambodia’s much improved economic standing, Hun Sen also said he had eliminated the Khmer Rouge in which “your grandparents and parents could survive, so that is why you can work for American radio and newspapers.”
RFA is funded by the United States and last month its deputy director for Cambodia, Huot Vuthy, fled the country over allegations that he falsely identified himself as an assistant to the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) during a prison visit. The Cambodia Daily is owned by American family interests.
Those used to Hun Sen’s pronouncements would not have been surprised by his latest outburst, which came in response to questions at a press conference. But it did astonish international delegates and other media who came here expecting Phnom Penh to show off her friendlier side.
Business leaders had also hoped Cambodia would use the WEF to improve its reputation, often maligned by allegations of corruption and human rights abuses, as opposed to politicking ahead of commune elections on June 4, and a national poll not due till July 2018.
Under the headline, “Hun Sen Hijacks Forum Session to Scold Media,” the Cambodia Daily insisted, “Our mission is unbiased news, without fear or favor” and quoted Tripti Lahiri, Asia bureau chief for website Quartz, who also said she was surprised by the outburst.
“The prime minister spent the bulk of his answer criticizing the outlets the reporters worked for, instead of responding to two reasonable questions,” Lahiri said.
She was not alone. RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan said the incident demonstrated “what poor regard Cambodia’s government has for independent, free press.”
Garments, tourism, construction, and agriculture are key planks of the local economy, which has led regional GDP growth of more than seven percent annually in recent years. Technology, youth, and the digital era were suppose to be major themes of the WEF.
But on the eve of the forum Hun Sen also repeated earlier warnings that Cambodia would return to civil war if his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979, is not returned at national elections in July next year.
“The Cambodian People’s Party must win elections, every election … War will happen if the CPP does not control the country anymore,” he told a gathering of war veterans from Cambodia’s three-decade conflict, which ended in 1998.
Hun Sen alone controls the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. His personal body guard unit numbers around 3,000, and while some military units are sponsored by private business, many Chinese, they too owe their allegiances to the prime minister. Some were present at the WEF.
The WEF turned down some media applications to cover the event, citing “space constraints.” It also has declined to answer any further questions from this journalist. Those rejections came on the heels of complaints the Cambodian government is becoming increasingly selective in choosing friendly reporters to cover its press conferences and events.
Hun Sen has also previously said he had his own people working inside Cambodia’s media industry, including the Phnom Penh Post.
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