Cambodia's political crackdown reached a new low on May 9, when eight human rights defenders were detained for the unauthorised wearing of black T-shirts.
Though the group was later released, the arrests on “Black Monday” were a typical example of what Richard Hofstadter might have termed “the paranoid style in Cambodian politics”: the tendency to see any stirring of opposition, however small, as a threat to social cohesion and national survival.
The crackdown that has unfolded over the past year, anchored by an alleged affair between Kem Sokha, deputy president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and a hairdresser named Khom Chandaraty, is new only in its specifics.
Similar tightenings occurred in 2005-06, and again in 2009-10, both containing the usual mix of ingredients: flimsy lawsuits, blustery threats from Prime Minister Hun Sen, a lengthening cast of sued and imprisoned.
More than 20 people have been jailed this electoral season.
Last week, police arrested four members of the local human rights group Adhoc and a member of the National Election Committee, all of whom are accused of bribing Chandaraty to deny her “affair” with Sokha.
Five CNRP officials, including two elected lawmakers, are also behind bars on various pretexts, while the party’s president, Sam Rainsy, enjoys yet another enforced Parisian sojourn, as he has during the past two mid-election crackdowns.
In recent comments to Radio Free Asia, Ou Virak, the head of the Future Forum policy institute, pointed out what should surely be obvious: that the Kem Sokha “sex scandal” is a towering political confection. In response, he was sued for defamation.
Past experience suggests that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party will loosen the shackles, sooner or later. For more than two decades, Hun Sen has deftly alternated periods of pressure with periods of calm in just the right balance to cripple his opponents and maintain the grudging support of foreign donor governments. But while the frequency remains the same, the amplitude is slowly rising.
The targeting of foreign NGO staff during the Black Monday protests was an unprecedented tactic, as arguably are the legal charges against Virak, one of the country’s few truly nonpartisan political commentators.
It’s unclear how much further things will go, but after nearly losing the 2013 election to a resurgent CNRP, the ruling party has every incentive to make the current tightening more permanent. Backed strongly by a rising China, it also has less fear of a significant Western backlash.
Is Cambodia’s mirage finally fading? In my 2014 book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, I employed this metaphor to describe the façade of democratic institutions that overlay Cambodia’s patronage-based political system.
The mirage was a legacy of the Paris Peace Agreements of October 1991 and the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) that was dispatched to the country to implement its terms.
UNTAC arrived at a crucial point in the intellectual history of the West: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was felt – felt because wished – that human civilisation had reached its final terminus. With the world now at the “end of history”, as the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama profitably termed it, liberal democracy and free markets would henceforth become the world’s political and economic defaults.
From a distance – particularly an American distance – Cambodia seemed to fit this pattern well. After falling victim to the Cold War, the war-torn country would finally be ushered towards peace and democracy by a unified “international community” working in tandem with networks of local NGOs.
Hun Sen, part of a government that had ruled Cambodia since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, instinctively recognised that the “end of history” was a revolution of words, not realities – what the Australian cultural critic Clive James would later describe as “a thirty-second seduction by language”.
But as the leader of a weak nation, picked over for centuries by powerful outsiders, Hun Sen also appreciated the tactical virtues of the seduction. Unable to resist foreign intervention, he adapted: ie, he learned to tell foreign governments what they wanted to hear.
Exhibit A: the UN-organised 1993 election, which the CPP lost to Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party. Rather than admitting defeat and accepting a role as a junior coalition partner, the CPP cried fraud and strong-armed itself into an equal share of power, eventually ousting Ranariddh from power during fierce factional fighting in July 1997.
Foreign donor governments balked at the violence, but acquiesced when a new election, in mid-1998, laundered the victory of arms into one sanctified by electoral process.
Beneath the institutions and language imported by UNTAC, political life continued to operate in line with a culture of perpetual struggle with no tradition of individual rights or democratic power-sharing. Ultimately, this was anchored in a karmic understanding of power.
Its main currency was bon, Buddhist “merit”, its main institution ksae, the “strings” of patron-client ties that radiated outwards to the extremities of the body politic, holding competing interests and loyalties in a delicate, ever-shifting balance.
At the same time, Hun Sen learned that talk was cheap. Not only that – it was lucrative. In exchange for adopting the international bureaucratese of “transparency” and “good governance”, Cambodia received hundreds of millions in foreign development aid each year. These infusions of cash could then be transmuted, via the alchemy of patronage and personality, into further political gains for the CPP.
And so post-UNTAC Cambodia came to retain all the outward forms of democracy – parliaments, courts, elections, a constitution with full guarantees of individual rights – with nearly none of the substance. As current events show, Cambodia’s prevailing political culture continues to anathematise the very concept of opposition.
There is Hun Sen’s consensus, flush with karmic alignments; everything else is rebellion against the “natural” order. For the CPP, a black shirt is not simply a black shirt.
In recent weeks, foreign embassies and UN officials have expressed perennial “concerns” about the erosion of Cambodian democracy.
There is much to be concerned about, of course, but there has never been much to erode. Such freedoms that exist in Cambodia exist not as a matter of right, but as a temporary indulgence of those in power.
Recent events suggest that these indulgences could soon be withdrawn. The ruling party shows no intention of giving up power at the next election. Democratic language is beginning to fall away.
The mirage is fading. Crucially, the CPP understands its own admitted shortcomings in Cambodian terms: as an abdication of responsibility by patrons towards clients (ie CPP voters).
Thus it has made changes – wage hikes, land redistribution schemes – designed to bring the system of patronage relations back into “balance”. More fundamental reform remains outside its mental and moral vocabulary.
All this sets the stage for a potentially tumultuous showdown at commune elections next June, and national polls scheduled for mid-2018.
These will pit a rigid system against the rising expectations of an electorate that is younger, more educated, more connected and, as a result, more able to distinguish the language of democracy from its substance. Things could get messy.
Sebastian Strangio is author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia and a former reporter and editor at the Post.