CAMBODIA: The country must not repeat Burma’s mistake

Posted by: | Posted on: December 17, 2012

Contributors: Ou Ritthy

Op-Ed: Human Rights Asia

Many opposition politicians, NGO personnel, students, researchers, taxi drivers, vendors and city dwellers expected US president Barack Obama, who attended the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, to push the Cambodian government to better respect human rights and democratic principles, especially free and fair elections in the Kingdom. They hoped for a US pressure to release political prisoners, notably Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando, land-dispute protestors, and to allow opposition leader Sam Rainsy in self-exiled in Paris, to return to Cambodia to participate in the 2013 election.

Sadly, even before President Obama’s visit, indications were clear that Phnom Penh had no genuine intention to stop its rights violations, embrace the rule of law, or combat rampant corruption.

Cambodia’s minister of information and government spokesman declared publicly that Obama is not Premier Hun Sen’s boss or Cambodian government’s guru. Such unwelcome and fighting words stand opposite of the Cambodian people’s culture of warmth and generosity toward all.

In Burma, thousands of Burmese wearing T-shirts with Obama’s portraits lined up the streets, and democracy icon Aug Sann Suu Kyi and reform-minded dictator president Thein Sein, welcomed the US president. Hundreds of students listened to Obama’s speech at Rangoon University. In Cambodia, eight citizens were arrested for displaying Obama’s portrait and an SOS message on the roofs of their homes. The citizens were facing eviction from their homes at Thmar Kaul village. Worse, people weren’t allowed to line up along the Russian Boulevard to welcome Obama. The government said this was due to security reason and traffic congestion.

Though the US President made no public announcement, in a face-to-face meeting with Premier Hun Sen, President Obama raised several issues as suggested by US republican senators and other national and international rights groups. Impressively, Obama raised concerns over political prisoners and did mention Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando. But Premier Hun Sen replied there is no political prisoner in Cambodia, only politicians with criminal offences.

U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes described the private Obama-Hun Sen meeting as “tense.” The Daily Mail reported Cambodia’s First Lady Bun Rany Hun Sen was disrespectful of President Obama when she used the Khmer sampeah at chest level reserved for greeting a low level person.

Many Cambodians looked at the White House’s photo album of 41 photos of President Obama’s visit to ASEAN countries: No photo of Premier Hun Sen whose name was misspelled.

While Obama was in Phnom Penh, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged a $300-$500 yearly loan to Cambodia. Premier Hun Sen was hugely complementing China’s support and generosity. Why should there be a surprise when the 21st ASEAN Summit failed to produce a joint resolution, except in economics and trade? Unhappy, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, four claimant countries in dispute with China over the South China Sea, decided to meet in Manila on 12 December to discuss the issue without China.

The summit was a shining opportunity for Cambodia as chair of ASEAN to perform impartially, conforming to Article 1 of the country’s Constitution: The Kingdom of Cambodia shall be independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned country.

Cambodia should have demonstrated respect for ASEAN member states’ national interests to contribute toward the building of a more cohesive 2015 ASEAN Community. Facing US “pivot” or “rebalancing strategy” in Asia, especially South East Asia, ASEAN member states need to be united and protect each other’s national interests, rather than siding with China or the US, to avoid jeopardizing ASEAN prosperity and harmony and endangering the region’s peace.

Presently among ASEAN member states, Burma is on the road to reforms as she gradually breaks away from China, but Cambodia remains a subordinate to China, which finds Cambodia’s vital geostrategic location to serve Beijing’s national security in region. Beijing also needs Cambodia’s natural resources for China’s economic miracle.

On the other hand, Cambodia sees China as a vast dependable source of aid and loan, supposedly without strings; a huge market for Cambodia’s economic growth; a super military power that can help Phnom Penh to have some influence, and undermine threats from neighboring countries. Cambodia sees China as her strong supporter on international stage.

But I am not convinced that Chinese aid and loan have no strings attached. As a saying goes, “there is no free lunch in the world”. China needs Cambodia as a faithful subordinate to support and protect Beijing’s national interests.

Geopolitically speaking, Cambodia’s special strategic location is most desirable for China. In case of conflict with Vietnam, the S-shaped Vietnam can be easily attacked by land from Cambodia. Through water, China can use Sihanoukville, Kampong Som, Kompot and Koh Kong, and can straightforwardly access the Gulf of Thailand, the Straits of Malacca, and the Indian Ocean.

While Cambodia has faithfully opted for a One-China Policy, this policy has broadened its scope beyond Taiwan. Cambodia has supported China in almost all aspects of Chinese domestic and foreign policies. Thus, Cambodia forcibly deported 20 Uighur ethic asylum-seekers to China; pays no attention to the devastation, and suffering of Cambodian citizens, along the Mekong as a result of Chinese hydropower dams built in Yunnan province and on the Upper Mekong Basin; Cambodia supports China on the South China Sea dispute; and Phnom Penh ignores Chinese rights abuses.

A disadvantage of being too close to China is that it makes Cambodia’s human rights and fledgling democracy worse. China is not interested in these matters so long as Cambodia serves China’s interests.

As an impartial judiciary and the rule of law do not exist in Cambodia, a foreign direct investment (FDI) cannot be established. Democratic countries like Japan, America, Canada, Australia and the EU do not want to risk greater investments in Cambodia. Yet, many Chinese and Vietnamese people are in Cambodia, along with their investments.

Since 2006, Chinese companies have invested $8.2 billion; Vietnam has invested over $2 billion, according to the Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia Economic Co-operation Development Association. Conflicts with the local people have occurred due to land conflicts and environment issues, and the failure to respect the local people’s rights.

As long as Cambodia is attached to China, Cambodia remains authoritarian. Burma’s four decades of military rule witnessed Burma’s violations of human rights, and a dictatorship ruled by military junta. Burma relied on China in many respects. For the Cambodian government, please don’t do what Burma did!

US President Thomas Jefferson said, public debt is the greatest of dangers to nation. Look! Cambodia has been heavily indebted to China and is trapped in indebtedness, with a long-term impact on Cambodian young generation.

As the US rearranges its ‘pivot’ in Asia, Cambodia has become an arena for US-China competition, geopolitically and ideologically.

Historically, Cambodia endured a bitter lesson when the US and the Soviet Union fought their proxy war in Indochina in the 1960s. We must work to remain non-aligned and balance the interests of today’s super powers, the US and China. Plus, being so cohesively attached to China creates problems for ASEAN member states’ team spirit and trustworthiness, making a commitment to ASEAN prosperity and harmony doubtful.

A colleague asked me if our government is not allied with China, where would Cambodia get money to run the government and to use for development. I replied, “I see many doable mechanisms to avoid being a Chinese subordinate”.

The government needs 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. And gradually government should also tax the middle class.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in 2012, Cambodia was ranked 157/176 countries and scored: 22/100: corruption leads to many chronically critical social, economic, legal and political issues.

To avoid too much loans for national development, the government must fight corruption genuinely. In Cambodia, corruption is rampant in all levels of society. The jailed owner of Beehive Radio and president of the Democrats Association, Mam Sonando, once said he would give $100 to anyone who knows of any government ministry that is not corrupt. In an interview with the VOA in Khmer, Preab Kol, Executive Director of Transparency International in Cambodia, affirmed there are not enough prisons in Cambodia for the corrupt to stay in if they were arrested.

Establishing a transparent and trustworthy policy to fight corruption is a must. But make sure to avoid applying anti-corruption law discriminately.

The government must reduce the large number of advisors, undersecretaries and secretaries of state and council ministers. This will save a lot of money for the national budget. Then the government can use the money to develop prioritized sectors.

Last but not least, Cambodia is rich in natural wealth. We have all kinds of trees, fishes, oil, minerals and others. They are priceless renewable and sustainable sources of economic development. Through effective and efficient management, we avoid loans from abroad.

The groundwork of any country’s economic success comprises of an educated, healthy and employable citizens. To reach this goal, Cambodia needs to focus on agriculture and education.

The government needs a specific and long-term development plan on agriculture, industry and service. Cambodia needs to focus on agriculture for food grain sufficiency and on a basic principle of income for each household. Agriculture sector helps make strong economic households nationwide. It is imperative to focus on agriculture and to jump to industry and service.

Take one example. After independence in 1947, India was poor and lacked food grain supply for her people. In the late 1960s, the government started paying serious attention to agriculture by initiating what was called Green Revolution. Thanks to the Green Revolution, the government built a solid foundation of micro economy, generated income for the people, and India took another step toward industry and service sectors. Presently, the Indian people are thankful to the Green Revolution, which made India’s industry and service booming. Basically, India has become food sufficient and the world’s leading rice exporting country! Owing to the long-term impact of the Green Revolution, India’s service sector is becoming the world’s largest software exporting country to the US, Japan, Canada and the EU. An economic super power has been born.

Back to Cambodia, at the peak of the Arab spring, many Cambodians including a leader of opposition party flirted with Arab-style revolution as a mean to topple Premier Hun Sen and his one-party system in Cambodia. I begged to differ. I want no bloody revolution.

But I strongly wish to see Green Revolution in my country. Whenever I speak and write, I choose the peaceful approach to insist that my government should spend a large portion of the national budget on agriculture and education as the only way for poverty eradication and for sound industry and service sectors in the future.

Green revolution cultivates rice, provides high-yield seeds, doubles crops existing farmland and irrigation facilities. It also renovates the agro-industrial products like coffee, rubber plantation, cashews, cassava, silk, corn and food processing among others. Basically, it transforms the traditional and extensive agriculture to intensive and commercial agriculture with the help of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives.

Tourism is the main source of Cambodian economy. But tourism in Cambodia is just “cultural tourism” that depended only on temples like Angkor Wat and other cultural heritages. In this context, through Green Revolution, the Cambodian government could link up with tourism, and develop ‘agri-tourism.’ Through cultural tourism and agri-tourism, Cambodia would attract many more tourists than ever before.

Unfortunately, the projected 2013 national budget reveals Cambodia would spend only $35.3 million for agriculture sector, or one percent of the $3 billion budget; and only about $280 million for education sector.

Without paying attention to Cambodia’s agriculture sector, more than 80% of Cambodian population will never be prosperous and can never break away from chronic poverty. The large number of Cambodian laborers will keep migrating to other countries like Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and others for work.


The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.
About the Author:

Ou Ritthy is a graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune University, India (2008-2011). He can be reached at / Twitter: @ritthyou.

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