Contributors: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

It was with a deep sense of satisfaction that I muttered to myself “Amen!” after I read an article in the Phnom Post of December 4, 2012 titled, “Shift in CNRP’s political strategy to win elections.”

According to the Post report, opposition leaders who merged the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party to form the new Cambodian National Rescue Party decided on a strategic shift away from negative campaigns fueled by traditional emotional “hot-button issues” of corruption and territorial problems with Vietnam, to focus instead on a proactive strategy offering Cambodian voters concrete policy initiatives in agriculture, healthcare, employment, salaries, minimum wage, and pensions for the elderly.

Influential opposition leader Son Chhay acknowledged Cambodian voters are more interested in the practical improvements to their living conditions than in the usual grievances of the past. He told the Post: “We have to become more mature in the way we take the issues to the public. We are transforming from just being the opposition; we are becoming a realistic choice of government.” Indeed.

I immediately sent e-mails to some Cambodian and non-Cambodian friends in Phnom Penh to ask for their thoughts. Cambodians didn’t reply on this subject – which tells me something – but a British friend did. What he said was similar to what University of New South Wales Professor Carlyle Thayer said, “Someone has done some very introspective thinking.” Not “playing the personality game” but “providing choices” to voters before the July 28 election is a positive step forward, commented Thayer, who cautioned, voters “need to not fear retribution to them” for not voting for the ruling party.

The CNRP’s proposals, as reported by the Post, include a $70 per hectare tax on economic land concessions that would generate about $200 million, and a tax increase to 50 percent of net profit on more than 50 casinos in Cambodia that would be expected to generate $400 million annually.

These tax revenues would help make up Cambodia’s national budget, of which half comes from loans from foreign sources; the rest from foreign donors’ annual aid. Thus, Cambodia survives on debt and on handouts while her rich natural wealth is plundered for personal profits.

In November 2011 the Cambodia Daily quoted the chairman of the National Assembly’s Commission on Economics, Finance, Banking and Auditing, Cheam Yeap of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party: Cambodia’s “total amount of outstanding debt” had reached $7 billion of which $4 billion was “owed to China alone.”

But Prime Minister Hun Sen contradicted Yeap: Cambodia’s debt was only $2 billion. Not surprisingly, Yeap retracted his statement: “We don’t know how much we owe in total”; the Prime Minister must be right “because he has the documents about that.”

A foreign blogger writing from Phnom Penh reminded readers that Article 90 of Cambodia’s Constitution says the National Assembly approves “the national budget, state planning, loans, financial contracts, and the creation, modification and annulment of tax,” and “approves administration accounts.” It follows that Yeap’s figure is likely based on actual accounting and is probably correct.

The opposition opposes the ongoing growth of Cambodia’s indebtedness, noting that the obligations curtail Cambodia’s free choice (as shown by the regime’s recent disastrous performance as ASEAN Chair regarding the South China Sea disputes) and entraps future generations as debtors. But senior CPP lawmaker Yeap insisted Cambodia has no choice but to continue to borrow money for the national budget.

“Time to change the News”

Last week, a Cambodian blogger wrote, “There (has) been more than enough News for us to share. . . It’s time to decide and act to change the News!!” In other words, he has more than enough news, he wanted action. He didn’t say whose action, but as I’ve observed before, change begins with oneself.

Forty years ago my mood was in the dumps as I watched Cambodia go through hell under the Khmer Republic, the Khmer Rouge, and then the Vietnamese invasion and occupation. I did what I thought I could at the time. Eventually I gave 9 years of my life to the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, a non-communist resistance in the field.

In 1989 I left the Resistance as I concluded the era of “liberation” was over for me, the international politics had evolved, my vision and my colleagues’ vision of the future were not in harmony, and we didn’t agree on our next course of action. Rather than remain a stumbling block, I left the field and chose my new academic career in 1990.

These days I am on distribution lists of Cambodians and groups reporting on news from my homeland. I read Cambodians’ interpersonal communications sent to me, some of which become personal attacks. Opposition leaders in the country are to be commended for announcing their changed strategy, but democrats abroad continue old habits. Recently my compatriot Kem Sos, former director of the Khmer section of Radio Free Asia, posted a comment, the sentiment of which I share:  “I see we all need to learn how to express ourselves in a manner (not offensive) to others.”

Not long ago, Cambodian-American Timothy Chhim noted in electronic communication, “Many Cambodians voice their ‘opinions’ (based on) negative emotions – the emotions that usually cause harmful effect to our society . . .” Chhim cited as weakness, Khmer opposition’s “negative attitude towards many issues. Cursing, yelling, screaming and/or character assassination . . . have not been (effective) for many decades . . . they repel rather than attract.”

Steady, rational, civilized

I humbly bow to a young writer, Ou Ritthy, who lives and works in Phnom Penh. Several of Ritthy’s articles, written with notable objectivity and offering creative and practical recommendations, have been published by the Asian Human Rights Commission. One article, “Cambodia: The country must not repeat Burma’s mistake” (12/13/2012), suggested “many doable mechanisms” for Cambodia to avoid China’s debt, “avoid being a Chinese subordinate.”

Debt to China “makes Cambodia’s human rights and fledgling democracy worse. China is not interested in these matters so long as Cambodia serves China’s interests,” the article reads. Among the “doable mechanisms,” Ritthy urged the government to “have a transparent and accountable tax policy. Tax the rich and wealthy classes who possess a large number of hectares of land, buildings, luxurious cars, lucrative private-sector businesses, land concessions, casinos and other alcohol-producing companies,” he wrote.

“Wean Cambodia from foreign aid”

A 2013 book which I recommend is Aid Dependence in Cambodia, How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, by U.S. Naval Postgraduate School’s national security affairs professor Sophal Ear, a Khmer American.

Sophal’s mother, courageous and clever, was able to flee Cambodia with her family in 1975, when Ear was a young boy.  The family was admitted to Vietnam, then left Saigon for asylum in France in 1978, and migrated to the United States in 1985. I can’t do justice to Professor Ear’s well-researched book in this space, but here are some important points.

Modern Cambodia is a “kleptocracy cum thugocracy,” says Professor Ear, and the international community, spearheaded by the United Nations, is its enabler. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (1992-1993) “sowed the seeds of failure for democracy in Cambodia,” rather than build a foundation for a “stable and peaceful future” for the Khmer people. He says “the only standard by which UNTAC – and indeed most of the international interventions in Cambodia that have followed – can honestly be judged a success is in comparison to 1.7 million deaths under the Khmer Rouge, a comparison hardly worth making.”

“Today, there is abject poverty amidst plenty,” Ear writes; “despite an economy that has had near double-digit growth each year of the first decade of the new millennium, net aid (Cambodia) received (from foreign donors) equaled, on average, 94.3 percent of central government spending between 2002 and 2010.”

In other words, for each dollar the government spent, foreign donors gave it on average 94.3 cents in net foreign aid: One dollar spent, almost one dollar given. So, billions of dollars have poured into Cambodia, but corruption, maternal and child mortality have not declined. Professor Ear affirms in the book’s four chapters that present Cambodia as “a country plagued by bad governance.”

So, “donors chastise the government while pledging even more money than it has requested. In so doing, they permit the Cambodian government to remain unaccountable, corrupt, and lacking the political will to solve the nation’s problems and create a truly firm foundation for democratic governance.” Ear calls this an “annual exercise in cognitive dissonance.”

“Why try hard to collect taxes and raise domestic revenues when you’ve got a Sugar Daddy in foreign donors?” asks Ear.

Meanwhile, Hun Sen’s circle dance

Cambodia’s general election is less than five months away. Prime Minister Hun Sen, master of the Khmer political circle dance, the Ramvong, is adept at manipulating the dance floor, and Khmer and non-Khmer participants.

Last February 19, visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner told Cambodian deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong that Washington wants to see opposition leader Sam Rainsy, now  in self-exile in France, and jailed Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando, participate in the July 28 election.

A day after, Rainsy told the Voice of America he was optimistic about returning to Cambodia.

But Hor Namhong told Posner that Rainsy and Sonando have been convicted of criminal offenses, they “are prisoners”; the US should not urge Cambodia to violate her law and interfere in her judiciary. Cambodia’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, Ouch Borith, blasted: “The US is teaching Cambodia to turn into an anarchic country.”

On February 24, Rainsy issued a statement with the headline, “No Foreign Observers at the Coming Elections, No International Recognition for an Illegitimate Government Resulting from Illegitimate Elections.” How will foreign governments respond?

Latest news from Cambodia tells me opposition activists have been gaining momentum and grass-roots Cambodians are happy with the opposition’s strategic shift to practical issues that concern them, although voters are not clear who the CNRP’s prime ministerial candidate is, or in which way Rainsy will return and when.

In Cambodia, the least expected happens; what you see is not necessarily what it seems. Cambodia’s autocratic regime will not last. Its end will come. Democrats must stay focused, civilized and determined. The fight against abuses will not end with the elections.   The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-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-012-2013
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 23-02-2013