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Quotes & Op-Ed from BuzzFeed
Facebook has styled itself as a neutral platform for information. But its role in spreading propaganda and fake news, as well as its relationship with the Cambodian government, shows how easily that neutrality can be exploited by autocrats.
Weeks after Kem’s arrest, Cambodia’s top court dissolved the main opposition party at the request of the government. It marked a fundamental shift in Cambodian politics, which had long incorporated a vibrant media and civil society, as well as flawed but fiercely fought elections. Democracy in the country had collapsed, and it was broadcast to millions on Facebook.
Lim Cheavutha, who is in his thirties and speaks with an easy confidence, brags about the pageviews on Fresh News with the passion of a football coach obsessing about stats. The site combines the fast-breaking headlines of a newswire with a decidedly pro-government slant, and Lim says he’s so close to Hun Sen that they sometimes message about stories well past midnight. Asked about the growth of his site, he claims extraordinary numbers that are impossible to verify because the company is privately held — more than 10 million pageviews per month and 1,400 downloads of the app a day. (Cambodia has about 4.8 million Facebook users, according to a 2017 assessment.)
Lim says he built Fresh News from scratch with just $10,000. His critics say this is untrue and that Hun Sen is simply bankrolling the site. (A spokesperson for the prime minister did not respond to requests for comment on the site’s ownership.) Lim insisted his site was independent — but then expressed pride in his cozy relationship with the prime minister and other ruling party officials. The opposition won’t return his messages, he said, though opposition officials told me they’d never heard from Lim.
In a place like Cambodia, Lim’s site couldn’t be successful without Facebook, which is where almost everyone gets their news. “Facebook is an absolute necessity for my site,” he said.
Lim said his most popular stories are about the mundane, like traffic accidents and celebrity gossip. But when it comes to politics, he’s quick to note that he alone has the ear of the prime minister.
“They trust me because if they give me the whole thing, I publish the whole thing,” Lim said. “If he [the prime minister] wants to spread news, he comes to me … that’s why I get scoops.” Despite claiming to be independent, Lim said he does not edit Hun Sen’s statements, and says he puts out quick stories himself, tapping them out on his phone, based on what message the prime minister wants to get out.
It’s clear that Hun Sen, who has spent 33 years in power, understands how important Facebook is in his country. With more than 9 million followers, he is the third most engaged world leader on Facebook, after Donald Trump and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, according to a study by the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. The report called his presence “unusual” in its candidness — browsing through shows plenty of selfies as well as shots of him with his family and working behind the scenes. For Cambodians, it was a change from the strongman-like figure he presented for years before.
“He’s been a zealous convert to Facebook,” said Sebastian Strangio, the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia. “He’s using Facebook to sand down the rough edges and present a more avuncular and beneficent public image.”
“Facebook is the most important part of work as well as life,” said Duong Dara, an aide to Hun Sen and the head of his Facebook team, in a rare interview. “The new generation doesn’t have time to watch television anymore, even I don’t buy newspapers. The News Feed, I can see quickly.”
Duong, who is in his early forties, first started using Facebook, he said, because he saw posts about Cambodia being a dangerous place to visit and wanted to clap back out of patriotism. Later, he created a fan page for Hun Sen, who he had long supported. He attracted millions of followers with his straightforward voice. After the election in 2013, Hun Sen himself saw it, Duong said, and got in touch.
Duong came on board and began building a team to manage Hun Sen’s Facebook presence. He declined to specify its size, but said the team was made up of technical people as well as those who understand politics, government policy, and public opinion.
Duong, who speaks English with a perfect American-style accent, has traveled throughout his country and abroad at Hun Sen’s side. He carries five mobile phones in a black vinyl case specifically so he can monitor different Facebook accounts. The phones use different cell service providers so that there’s always a guarantee of signal when the prime minister needs to post — even during a recent visit to China, where Facebook is blocked, and in less developed parts of the countryside.
Duong’s team obsessively monitors comments and likes on the prime minister’s posts with the fervor of day traders playing the stock market, trying to replicate successes and interrogate failures. They’ve learned photos that show Hun Sen’s personal side — like selfies or casual snaps — do a lot better than messages about policy.
Duong’s team also monitors Facebook for people posting comments critical of Hun Sen that they feel cross the line.
But pragmatists have advised that you couldn’t expect the jailed President to revoke your democratic CNRP back to live. The jailed President has no freedom to exercise his free will as well as to undertake a routine leadership to oversee his over 3 million members organization effectively. It has no proof that a jailed person could be an effective leader for any active large political organization. There must be a big misunderstanding in this matter, and the sympathizers have likely played into Hun Sen’s trap.
What would I begin with for the current political affairs of Cambodia? At all times, it is a challenging moment for major scholars to analyse the Cambodia political situation in a structural manner. Cambodia politics, during these decades, has been unpredictable, uncertain and risky. Hun Sen has become a pivotal actor to all these unpredictable occurrences and he has boldly coped all those occurrences. In July 1997, the bloody coup detat was exploded within his controllable magnitude, but the anchoring force at the border by his opponent led by Nhek Bun Chay was believed to pressure him to return back to conduct a participatory election. Thus, this happened only after he was sure to ably cope the election outcome. This end of 2017, the preparedness for Senate election in February 25, 2018 and the national election in July 29, 2018, Hun Sen has been pragmatic on his predictable election outcome as if he allowed the existing rule of the game (existing NEC and CNRP), he would loss the power. Hun Sen has learnt to be a King in all circumstances (from his own speech and it is true from our own observation through his lifetime of politician career; this is different from other leaders who have stepped down when time is suitable for them to step down for the sake of collective/national interest although they still see chance to win over the game). This time, Hun Sen has made a decisive moving-ahead by jailing Kem Sokha (president of the CNRP), dissolving the CNRP, taking away all seats of both 55 law-makers and 5007 commune/quarter counsellors elected by the people, and banning all 118 high ranking officers of the CNRP not to participate in Cambodia politics for 5 years. This political manoeuvring has noted as a cold blood coup to renew his power. Hun Sen has been the longest premier serving in post by a facade democratic election, and he has boasted to stay tenure for another ten years.
There are speculations that Hun Sen will turn Cambodia into North Korea model in the next five years under modern stage of the international stresses. He will not oblige to follow democratic model well-known among Western states, or he will imitate governance model of China or Vietnam. He will practice facade-democracy through a disenfranchised and controllable election mechanism to ensure his tangible political projection.
Pragmatically, the strongest Hun Sen doesn’t exactly reflect its reality, the strongest Hun Sen is because the weakness of his rivalry (opposition). As said, during the largest crowd of rally against election rigs in 2013 by the CNRP, the negotiation with Hun Sen seems achieved trivial things such as the new creation of NEC structure and the TV Channel, while the key components for power-based sustainability such as the reform or change of judiciary system/institution as well as the neutral arm-force, neutral policemen, and neutral public servants etc. were not prevailed. After agreeing to resume the national assembly and endorse Hun Sen as Premier in his fifth mandate, there were notably conflict in leadership skills within the CNRP as the top leader attempted “culture of dialogue” but individual law-maker attempted border scheme campaign against the vision of dialogue, or between President and Vice President, they both was likely not in the same page in directing their grand plan and their men. There were vacuum allowing external force to slow down or to obstruct the party’s works. There were encouragement for CNRP to work hard and to work smart indispensably after entering the Assembly. Actually, there were opportunities to change from within by working at the Assembly of those 55 law-makers, but their activities were active at the grassroots level more than in the top level of government. The chronic obstacles of democracy such as the court, the non-neutral national police institution, the systemic corruption, the unequal economic growth, the ineffective public servants, and the non-neutral army etc. were not actively engaged by or at least the CNRP’s working group did actively engage in policy changes of those shortcoming entities to survive itself or to assimilate them with their value for their long term “survival of the fittest” political arena.
This is perhaps one of the reasons in emerging Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) to replace some of the dysfunctional ability of this party. In practice, there are active unity and passive unity, active bonding and passive bonding, active splitting and passive splitting. This time, CNRP has been entrapped into a Khmer-pot (ក្អម), so if you don’t split your force (បំបែកំឡាំង) from such Khmer-pot, you will die effortlessly. Therefore, all splitting forces must come with pragmatic and concrete action-plans, vision, mission statement, and predictable outcomes etc.
By Sek Sophal
After a series of crackdowns by the Cambodian government on independent media, civil society organizations, and a main opposition party in late 2017, Western countries swiftly responded by imposing visa restrictions on Cambodia’s high-ranking officials and terminating development aid. However, Japan, as a treaty ally of the US and a democratic country sharing the values of freedom and human rights, has neither terminated its Official Development Aid (ODA) to Cambodia, nor cut its technical and financial assistance for the National Committee for Election (NEC).
Speaking to the Voice of America on Dec. 22, 2017, Japan’s Ambassador to Cambodia Hidehisa Horinouchi argued that assuring the opportunity for the people of Cambodia to express their political will and strengthening the credibility of the election process were Japan’s motivations to keep assisting the NEC. But Japan’s decision to remain engaged with a troublesome NEC goes beyond transparency of the election to a long-term strategic end to shape Cambodian politics amid growing competition with China for influence.
Cambodia has become an important destination for Japan’s investment, given its supply of low-cost labor, the potential for stable economic growth (averaging 7 percent for the last two decades), and the increased purchasing power of Cambodian people. The growing significance of bilateral diplomatic relations was evident when Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Prime Minister Hun Sen upgraded diplomatic relations to a “strategic partnership” in 2013. Since then, the number of Japanese companies investing in Cambodia has rapidly increased. According to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), there were just 19 Japanese companies in Cambodia in 2010. By 2015, the number had jumped to 250, making Japan the third largest foreign investor in the country.
Cambodia’s geography plays a crucial role in Japanese thinking: physical infrastructure in Cambodia links Japan’s industrial bases in Thailand and Vietnam. Japan’s East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC), which was initiated in 1998 and became operational in late 2006, relies not only on human and financial capital and industrial bases in newly industrialized countries, such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, but also on connections of physical infrastructure in mainland Southeast Asian countries. Although Cambodia was not included in the EWEC at the beginning, political instability and natural disasters in Thailand during the past decade elevated the role of Cambodia in minimizing trade and investment risks and increasing resilience of the supply chain. Massive floods in Thailand in 2011 taught Japan a bitter lesson. According to the World Bank, estimated losses were no less than $4 billion, of which Japan’s investment, particularly in the automobile industries, accounted for a considerable share.
Over-reliance on Thailand is proving to be a dangerous strategy. Oizumi Keichiro, an economist at the Japan Research Institute, notes that “80 percent of investment approvals granted to Japanese business by the Thailand Board of Investment (BOI) relate to investments in Bangkok and the eight surrounding provinces” and all of them are prone to annual flooding. To cope with this growing challenge, the Thailand-Plus-One business model was initiated in 2013 not only to minimize investment risks, but also to increase Japanese competitiveness in both the regional and global supply chain. In this model, Japanese companies are advised to move labor-intensive production to one of Thailand’s neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, while Thailand plays a role as hub of Japan’s investment and production clustering. In this strategy, Japan depends on Cambodia to supply low-cost labor and facilitate its supply chain through the country’s road network and scores of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which were largely developed and funded by Japan’s ODA and Japanese firms.
The Thailand-Plus-One strategy facilitates Japan’s EWEC and offers Cambodia great economic opportunities. Japan can expand its economic power to slow China’s growing influence in Cambodia. Although trade volume between Japan and Cambodia is far smaller than that between China and Cambodia, Japan can at least prevent China from dominating and monopolizing the Cambodian market as it did in Myanmar. Japan is optimistic that the economic opportunities facilitate stronger and deeper engagement to shape Cambodia’s politics.
Direct engagement with the NEC is strategically important for Japan’s foreign policy. Japan’s ODA wins the hearts of Cambodian people, but not those of Cambodian politicians from the ruling party. Its ODA is vital for Cambodia’s development, but less effective to challenge China’s growing influence in Cambodia. Helping the NEC, a national institution with a notorious history of alleged fraud and election manipulation, is a strategy of choice for Japan to remain a key player to engage, monitor, and if necessary put Cambodia’s election on the path of democracy.
Op-Ed: The Diplomat
A lot has changed in 40 years — but not everything.
Like Pol Pot before him, Hun Sen has now pinned his political longevity on China, which again looks out at a visage of hostile powers across Asia as it seeks to rise to the status of the regional hegemon, and celebrates having a strong ally in Phnom Penh.
The Soviet threat is gone, but Hun Sen’s cantankerous political attacks on all things American in Cambodia, which has tied him to the Chinese for support, might be viewed in much the same way as Pol Pot’s attacks on Vietnam: it’s me, or a pawn of China’s great power rival du jour.
Though Hun Sen never specified the precise hue of the “color revolution” brewing against him by Cambodia’ popular opposition party as he dismantled the country’s 25-year-old UN-built democracy late last year, his targets both in the opposition and in fragile civil society had a distinct American accent.
The 24-year-old U.S.-owned English-language newspaper-of-record, The Cambodia Daily, was forced to close — but not the Australian-owned Phnom Penh Post. Gone too were radio programs from the U.S.-run Voice of America and Radio Free Asia — along with two of their reporters, who were imprisoned for “espionage” — but not those of Radio France International.
Gone, even, was U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute — even as Germany’s Konrad Adanaeur Institute, which had been actively working with the opposition to develop policies, was left untouched. The message to China would have been clear.
Hun Sen is only the latest in a long line of Cambodian leaders to bank his leadership’s long-term survival and his legacy on the rise of China as the regional power.
Pol Pot, too, was not the first.
King Norodom Sihanouk, the father of Cambodia’s 1953 independence, also moved sharply toward China’s influence late in his rule. He went as far as to sever diplomatic ties with the U.S. in 1965, believing that the future in Asia was with China.
Pol Pot and King Sihanouk were notably both thwarted by competing interests from within their regimes — a pro-U.S. faction represented by the coup leader Lon Nol for Sihanouk in March 1970, and a pro-Vietnamese faction, with Hun Sen among the leaders, in the case of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.
Hun Sen may well yet prove to have bested both for timing in the China gambit. Yet as a self-proclaimed life-long student of history and geopolitics, he would be forgiven for looking around his party with apprehension.
Politically, Cambodians are largely naïve with most believing that they live in a ‘democracy’ despite the absence of its most obvious hallmarks such as civil and political rights, the separation of powers including an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, the right of assembly and freedom of the press (with the English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily recently closed down along with some radio stations). And this is an accurate assessment of most members of the political leadership of the CNRP as well.
Despite a 30-year record of political manipulation by Hun Sen and the CPP – during which ‘Hun Sen has made it clear that he does not respect the concept of free and fair elections’: see ‘30 Years of Hun Sen: Violence, Repression, and Corruption in Cambodia’ – which has included obvious corruption of elections through vote-rigging but also an outright coup in 1997 and the imprisonment or exile of opposition leaders since then, most Cambodians and their opposition leaders still participate in the charade that they live in a ‘democracy’ which could result in the defeat of Hun Sen and the CPP at a ‘free and fair’ election. Of course, there are exceptions to this naïveté, as a 2014 article written by Mu Sochua, veteran Cambodian politician and former minister of women’s affairs in a Hun Sen government, demonstrates. See ‘Crackdown in Cambodia’.
Moreover, as Sovannarun has noted: most Cambodians ‘still think international pressure is effective in keeping the CPP from disrespecting democratic principles which they have violated up until this day. Right now they wait for US and EU sanctions in the hope that the CPP will step back.’ See, for example, ‘The Birth of a Dictator’. He asks:
‘Even assuming it works, when will Cambodians learn to rely on themselves when the ruling party causes the same troubles again? Are they going to ask for external help like this every time and expect their country to be successfully democratized?’
The problem, Sovannarun argues, is that
‘Cambodians in general do not really understand what democracy is. Their views are very narrow. For them, democracy is just an election. Many news reports refer to people as “voters” but in Khmer, this literally translates as “vote owners” as if people cannot express their rights or power beside voting.’
Fortunately, recent actions by the CPP have led to opposition leaders and some NGOs finally declaring the Hun Sen dictatorship for what it is. See, for example, ‘The Birth of a Dictator’. But for Sovannarun,
‘democratization ended in 1997. The country should be regarded as a dictatorship since then. The party that lost the election in 1993 still controlled the national military, the police and security force, and the public administration, eventually using military force to establish absolute control in 1997. How is Cambodia still a democracy?’
However, recent comprehensive research undertaken by Global Witness goes even further. Their report Hostile Takeover ‘sheds light on a huge network of secret deal-making and corruption that has underpinned Hun Sen’s 30-year dictatorial reign of murder, torture and the imprisonment of his political opponents’. See ‘Hostile Takeover: The corporate empire of Cambodia’s ruling family’ and ‘Probe: Companies Worth $200M Linked to Cambodian PM’s Family’.
So what are the prospects of liberating Cambodia from its dictatorship?
Amid political stunt of cracking down on Cambodia’s democracy to increase the authoritarian leadership, the new episode of cold war politics in Cambodia has been rewritten to centralize a personal cult of dictatorial behaviour. After exiling Sam Rainsy and jailing Kem Sokha, the dissolution of CNRP was completed; the version of colour revolution and the personal cult narrative are made. But there are something dangerous over there inevitably.
Deadly slope ahead:
Different from the cold war when King Sihanouk allied with China to combat against USA as well as Vietnam allied with Russia to combat against both China and USA, Hun Sen has faced a more deadly bumpy road under current free market political economy. Pol Pot who was spearheaded by China was very disappointing when China didn’t stop Vietnam from invading Cambodia to stop their brutal rule in January 7, 1979. China didn’t care how much Vietnamese conspiracy was strongly built within the Khmer Rouge organization; China has cared only to control them both, Vietnam and Cambodia. Now, with Hun Sen’s administration cracking down a viable political party CNRP that could neutralize brutality in Cambodia, only China has come out to support with promising millions of dollar in aides including releasing a statement to guarantee free and fair election although China has no free and fair election in its country.
The tide of resistance from both domestic forces and international forces will firmly and increasingly position Hun Sen into China’s armpit. But like Pol Pot, China’s interest is first. USA and China cannot retreat themselves from the bonding of free market benefits. If the election will be conducted without the participation of CNRP, the deadly game will be inevitably exploded.
New episode is rewritten:
This year, the narrative of January 7 is purely boosting Hun Sen as the key actor. The clip was made in English subtitling aiming to lure international forces as well as to appeal voters’ support of CPP’s salvation version while the truth of history of this day is truly spitting on the face of all CPP’s circle elites. Resulting from 2013 national election, and the absence of celebration in January 7, 2014, the effort to light it up this year is remained more deeply suspicious among Cambodia’s voters. Khmer proverb says “don’t try to force someone to believe in you if you are not honestly telling the truth to them”, and “too much lie will defeat yourself”. And it is like what the Premier affirmed himself in the clip “don’t hope that brutality and cruelty can help you keep power. This lesson must be learned deeply. The more dictatorial and the more brutal, the sooner the collapse is.”
The Future Scenarios:
Selling old product of January 7, 1979 of the CPP has been hopeless by the observers as those believers in this day are representing around 30% among all eligible voters. With too overwhelming reversal political strategy of Hun Sen such as self-proclaimed hero, whitening out democratic force, politicizing every breadth of Cambodian society, family built-up wealth, pervasive corruptions, and praising this day of foreign invasion, denying UNTAC etc. shall distance Hun Sen and his regime far away from democratic election more and more. These forces are the extreme that can bring both dead and survival. But how could he hide himself by the shield of China alone?
CNRP has come a long way by its evolutionizing through the trend of the people, but it has less experience in adapting itself to “the survival of the fittest”. The latest tactic of pushing its boat along the stream could greatly benefit its investment, but it is also yielding an unpredictable result. To void this, this party must be more pragmatic in its action plan, long term plan, conviction, and workmanship. The existing system of political structure of Cambodia couldn’t permit free will and free mind of the democrats to exercise their potential fully. The pragmatists see these loopholes as the essential factors to adapt and change from within at the maximum. Now, all existing forces are not yet used. The domestic forces are like laid eggs waiting owner to pick and cook them. The international forces are partly used.