Going downhill fast

Sam Rainsy party office

Rural political party office

Kompong Thom province, Cambodia

Having lived all my life in Western democracies, it’s easy to forget that freedom of speech is by no means guaranteed, even in countries that claim to be democratic. To me, it seems unimaginable that a democracy can charge someone with insulting the nation’s character. Unfortunately, much of the world doesn’t seem to share my astonishment.

To someone in the Turkish establishment, for example, the idea of putting Orhan Pamuk on trial for ‘insulting Turkishness’ (a phrase which is conventional shorthand for rattling the skeleton in Turkey’s national closet) seems entirely reasonable. And to the present government of Cambodia, the idea of charging opposition figures with defamation seems equally appropriate and normal.

Cambodia’s fragile grasp on democracy apparently slipped a little bit more today, with the arrest of Kem Sokha, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a move which followed hard on the heels of the sentence passed in absentia on opposition leader Sam Rainsy. It’s hard not to get the impression of a systematic program to stifle dissenting voices.

I will confess that I have a soft spot for Sam Rainsy, because the people who tried to explain the murky world of Cambodian politics to me presented him as that most unlikely of figures, a heroic accountant. My informants, who may not have been unbiased, considered him a mostly honest man, something that allegedly puts him in a minority among Cambodian politicians. From what I heard, I’d incline to trust his side of any story over that of prime minister Hun Sen, a man who – among other things – already has one coup to his credit. When I was in Cambodia last year, there was a very real and widespread fear that if talks aimed at forming a coalition with Funcinpec broke down (and one of the sticking points was precisely the role of Hun Sen in the government), the country could dissolve again into the kind of bloodshed it saw in the early 1970s. I doubt that Hun Sen, whose faction is probably the largest and most heavily armed, did anything to discourage this impression, and the implicit threat may well have hastened his reinstallation as prime minister.

All of this has a more than academic interest for me just now, because M. is currently working with human rights groups in Phnom Penh, and I’m due to join her there in a couple of weeks. These look like being interesting times for Cambodia, so I’m curious to find out what the feeling is ‘on the ground’ when I get there.

**Update 01/05/2005: Cambodian authorities have arrested Pa Nguon Teang, deputy director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

**Update 03/18/2020: Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia in 2019. He was subsequently charged with plotting to overthrow the government. On 17 March 2022, after a trial that was widely viewed as corrupt, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

I should add that while Sam may be, as my informants claimed, refreshingly un-corrupt, he’s not without flaws of his own. He has a documented history of racist utterances against people of Vietnamese ancestry living in Cambodia. Racism is hard to forgive under any circumstances, but it is particularly dangerous in Cambodia, where racism against ethnic minority groups has often led to violence and murder. The fact that prejudice against ethnic minorities is widespread in Cambodia doesn’t excuse Sam: rather, it makes anything bigoted that he says even more perilous.