An article byDr.GaffarPeang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

It’s good to return to the webpages of the Asian Human Rights Commission. For the last several months it has been my honor—and a real learning experience—to work with award-winning filmmaker, Ellen Grant, Director of Media Services at Evergreen State College, to finalize her documentary film, “Cyber-democracy: Cambodia, Kafka’s Kingdom.”

The English-language version of the film is being submitted to international film festivals. In addition, with the support of a team I assembled, the film has been translated into the Khmer language. On October 24th, the English language version of the film had an initial showing to an audience of 400 in Long Beach, California; on October 25th, the Khmer language version was shown to a Khmer audience at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles. That event culminated in an exchange of views inspired by the film.

Because the full version of the English-language film is being submitted to film festivals, its circulation is limited. However, a short English version, “Cambodia online /Cyber-democracy at Risk” is available for screening at The full-length Khmer-language version is on YouTube at

The film reviews the evolution of dissent in Cambodia, the effort of the Prime Minister Hun Sen’s corrupt and entrenched regime to curb the growth of cyber-democracy (the free expression of Khmer citizens through the use of the Internet and social media), the realities faced by Khmer citizens and their response to issues such as land grabbing, poor wages, the suppression of free speech and assembly. It reviews the “truth” provided by the Hun Sen regime, and the “realities” represented by use of the Internet and social media.

As I write, the Hun Sen regime is pushing the passage of a “cyber-crime” law that will impact basic democratic rights of citizens. In support of opposition to the proposed law by concerned individuals in non-governmental organizations and in governments and international agencies, Ms. Grant’s film illustrates that the “cyber-crime” law goes beyond protection against criminals to condone brutal suppression of the elementary rights of citizens recognized by the Constitution.

The film calls for action for justice and freedom.

The man and the regime

Hun Sen, one the world’s longest-serving leaders, was installed as Cambodia’s Prime Minister in 1985 by Vietnam, which on Dec 25, 1978, committed 13 armed divisions of about 150,000 troops, backed by heavy artillery and aircraft, to invade Cambodia. On Jan 7, 1979, the Vietnamese troops took over Phnom Penh.

Hun Sen, a former deputy commander of Battalion 55 of Pol Pot’s Eastern Zone, was known for undertaking brutalities and massacres in his region. Hun Sen had fled to Vietnam during Pol Pot’s purge, but returned to Cambodia under the wing of Vietnam’s troops and affiliated with the “Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation” (KUFNS), created by Hanoi on Dec 2, 1978, with a few hundred former Khmer Rouge defectors.

Hun Sen has retained his post as Prime Minister for 30 years through the use of threats and intimidation to accumulate executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Hun Sen embodies what more than 230 years ago one of the American Founding Fathers, James Madison, called “the very definition of tyranny”—that is one who is at the same time a policeman, a lawmaker, and a judge. Hun Sen, now 63 years old, has vowed to stay in power until he is 74. But his hold on power is increasingly threatened by a restive population.

Bloodshed Awaits

In the “Kafka-esque” Cambodia depicted in Ms. Grant’s film, the ideal of political power alternating every few years between parties is alien. Dissent is treason. Free expression is a threat. Free and fair elections are antithetical to Hun Sen’s continuation in power, and are most unlikely to occur during his tenure. But Cambodians have had enough of one-man, one-party rule. They are ready for a change.

A free and fair election in 2018 would be a surprise. Consequently, the man who rules with an iron fist will remain in power longer. But, never indefinitely. I dare believe that even Hun Sen knows his rule will end. But, how will it end? Since a peaceful transfer of power is improbable, bloodshed awaits.

Three years ago I retold in this space a Danish fairy tale of 1837 that seems still most fitting today as we examine Cambodia, her people, and the international community.

Emperor Wears No Clothes

A pair of swindlers told the emperor that they could make his wardrobe from the most beautiful fabric, fabric with special qualities invisible to people who are stupid. To ensure that he would not be the stupid one who could not see the cloth, the emperor sent two trusted men to verify that the cloth was real and as beautiful as the swindlers had described. These couriers could not see the cloth, but were unwilling to admit the truth that would confirm their stupidity, so they praised the fine threads woven to make the lovely fabric.

The townspeople heard about the cloth. They were interested in learning who and how many among them were too stupid as not to see the cloth. So when the emperor, dressed in the new clothes, which he never admitted he could not see, traveled in a procession through the town, the townspeople wildly cheered and praised the emperor’s clothes.

Then a small child shouted: “But he has nothing on!”

The child’s words spread quickly from one person to another until everyone in the town shouted: “The emperor has no clothes!”

The emperor heard what the townspeople said. He knew they were right. But he could not admit he wore no clothes so he continued the procession, naked and exposed, to its conclusion.


Prime Minister Hun Sen’s efforts to stay in power are systematic; his strategy of using threats and intimidation are consistent. Take the last few months as example:

On July 21, 2015, Hun Sen’s courts convicted three CNRP activists to 20 years in prison for “leading an insurrection,” and eight others to seven years for joining the “insurrection.” All 11 had attended a CNRP rally at Freedom Park on July 15, 2014! To ensure that no Khmer has any illusion about the breadth of Hun Sen’s power, on July 29 (fourteen days later), four-star Gen. CheaDara told commanders, government officials, and civilians at the Peace Palace: “Every soldier is a member of the People’s Army and belongs to the CPP. . . I speak frankly when I say that the army belongs to the Cambodian People’s Party.” Earlier, in March, the CPP passed the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly, allowing soldiers to participate in election campaigns.

In August, Hun Sen’s public order led to the arrest of opposition Senator Hong SokHuor, despite his parliamentary immunity. Huor was charged with forgery and treason.

On October 9, in a lengthy statement posted on his Facebook page, Hun Sen renewed his warning that a CNRP victory in 2018 will result in a destructive civil war. He asserts that Sam Rainsy wants to create an independent tribunal to investigate the eviction of farmers from their lands, which were confiscated and given to rich businessmen. This investigation will foment civil war, he says. However, neither Rainsy nor the CNRP has military forces at their command. The civil war would be very one-sided.

One day later, foreign minister HorNamhong rekindled the old charge that the CNRP plans to “topple the government.” He told soldiers in southeasternTbaungKhmum on Oct 10 that the CNRP is plotting to “seize power.”

On Oct 14, Hun Sen warned Cambodia’s Cham Muslims during their Islamic New Year that a change in government from CPP to CNRP would bring war. Hun Sen implies that Cham Muslims could end up being slaughtered and persecuted as they were during Pol Pot’s regime in the 1970s—yet Human Rights Watch has accused Hun Sen, himself, of being a Khmer Rouge commander actively involved in the 1975 massacre of Cham Muslims in Kampong Cham.

Then on Oct 20, The Cambodia Daily reported Hun Sen’s speech declaring that Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Chief Pol Saroeun and National Police Chief NethSavoeun would “bring in their forces and react” should a new CNRP government dare to replace the old party faithful with new people.

On a state visit to France, Hun Sen, smarting from a rally against him organized by Khmer expatriates in Paris, told Cambodian students there on October 25 that Sam Rainsy could face similar charges as Hong SokHuor.

A day later, on Oct 26, a 2,000-strong demonstration outside of the National Assembly called for the removal of CNRP Vice President KemSokha from the Assembly’s vice presidency. This organized demonstration occurred subsequent to the posting of a petition calling for Sokha’s sacking “for the sake of national security,” by RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen. Kun Kim and others in the military. Sokha’s wife, 56, was terrorized by several hundred men on motorcycles who threw rocks at the house for six hours.

Demonstrators dragged two CNRP lawmakers, NhayChamroeun and Kong Sakphea out of their cars, severely beat them; they were hospitalized. The Phnom Penh Post linked leaders of the demonstration to Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit deputy commander, Lieut. Gen. DeangSarun, and Radio Free Asia reported the mob that beat up the lawmakers “included about 200 young men from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Commissionaire of Bodyguards,” driven in trucks from Bantey Pong Loeung to the Assembly. Three soldiers were charged with “intentional acts of violence and intentional damage of property.” 
On Oct 30, the 68 CPP lawmakers voted 68-0 (with all 55 CRNP lawmakers boycotting what they called “unconstitutional” proceedings) to remove KemSokha from the Assembly’s vice presidency.

This summary of recent offenses by the Hun Sen regime demonstrates clearly that the July 22, 2014 “agreement” signed by Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy to initiate a “Culture of Dialogue” is defunct. Khmers say, “It takes two hands to clap.” Hun Sen’s fists are clenched.

Fall like a ripe fruit

Hun Sen would have been removed from power long since if those who oppose his rule were more strategic and intentional in their actions. Cambodians tend to lack the humility that Lord Buddha and the great Chinese teacher, Confucius, call the “foundation of all virtues.” As many also do, Cambodians are loathe to accommodate or collaborate. There is an American saying that there are “too many chiefs and no Indians.” However politically incorrect that old remonstration may sound, it describes the root of the opposition’s failure in simple language.

Hun Sen is able to divide and conquer because he can wheedle and flatter and buy his way to continued power among divided antagonists who cannot coalesce around a single leader or set of principles.

Yet, Hun Sen knows he is the emperor who wears no clothes.

I have met, among my compatriots, activists who speak little but seem to think imaginatively and creatively. Will they also act smart? If each would mobilize three friends, and each of these friends mobilize three more, a large group with will and determination will cause a sea change.

Hun Sen cannot but fall like a ripe fruit. 

The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect that of the AHRC.

About the Author:

Dr.GaffarPeang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be reached at

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-009-2015
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 23-03-2017