To Liberate Cambodia

By Robert J. Burrowes.

A long-standing French protectorate briefly occupied by Japan during
World War II, Cambodia became independent in 1953 as the French finally
withdrew from Indochina. Under the leadership of Prince Norodom
Sihanouk, Cambodia remained officially neutral, including during the
subsequent US war on Indochina. However, by the mid-1960s, parts of the
eastern provinces of Cambodia were bases for North Vietnamese Army and
National Liberation Front (NVA/NLF) forces operating against South
Vietnam and this resulted in nearly a decade of bombing by the United
States from 4 October 1965. See ‘Bombs Over Cambodia: New Light on US
Air War’.

In 1970 Sihanouk was ousted in a US-supported coup led by General Lon
Nol. See ‘A Special Supplement: Cambodia’.
The following few years were characterized by an internal power struggle
between Cambodian elites and war involving several foreign countries,
but particularly including continuation of the recently commenced
‘carpet bombing’ of Cambodia by the US Air Force.

On 17 April 1975 the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known
as the Khmer Rouge, took control of Cambodia. Following four years of
ruthless rule by the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge, initially under Pol
Pot, they were defeated by the Vietnamese army in 1979 and the
Vietnamese occupation authorities established the People’s Republic of
Kampuchea (PRK), installing Heng Samrin and other pro-Vietnamese
Communist politicians as leaders of the new government. Heng was
succeeded by Chan Sy as Prime Minister in 1981.

Following the death of Chan Sy, Hun Sen became Prime Minister of
Cambodia in 1985 and, despite a facade of democracy, he and the
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have been in power ever since. This
period has notably included using the army to purge a feared rival in a
bloody coup conducted in 1997. Hun Sen’s co-Prime Minister, Prince
Norodom Ranariddh, was ousted and fled to Paris while his supporters
were arrested, tortured and some were summarily executed.

The current main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party
(CNRP) was founded in 2012 by merging the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human
Rights Party. Emblematic of Cambodia’s ‘democratic’ status, more than
two dozen opposition members and critics have been locked up in the past
year alone and the CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, known for his nonviolent,
politically tolerant views, is currently imprisoned at a detention
centre in Tboung Khmum Province following his arrest on 3 September 2017
under allegations of treason, espionage and for orchestrating
anti-government demonstrations in 2013-2014. These demonstrations were
triggered by widespread allegations of electoral fraud during the
Cambodian general election of 2013. See ‘Sokha arrested for “treason”,
is accused of colluding with US to topple the government’.

On 16 November 2017 the CNRP was dissolved by Cambodia’s highest court
and 118 of its members, including Sokha and exiled former leader Sam
Rainsy, were banned from politics for five years.

Cambodian Society

Socially, Cambodia is primarily Khmer with ethnic populations of
Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, Thai and Lao. It has a population of 16
million people. The pre-eminent religion is Buddhism. The adult literacy
rate is 75%; few Cambodians speak a European language limiting access to
western literature. Most students complete 12 years of (low quality
public) school but tertiary enrollment is limited. As in all countries,
education (reinforced by state propaganda through the media) serves to
intimidate and indoctrinate students into obedience of elites.
Discussion of national politics in a school class is taboo and such
discussions are rare at tertiary level. This manifests in the narrow
range of concerns that mobilize student action: personal outcomes such
as employment opportunities. Issues such as those in relation to peace,
the environment and refugees do not have a significant profile. In
short, the student population generally is neither well informed nor
politically engaged.

However, many other issues engage at least some Cambodians, with
demonstrations, strikes and street blockades being popular tactics,
although the lack of strategy means that outcomes are usually limited
and, despite commendable nonviolent discipline in many cases, violent
repression is not effectively resisted. Issues of concern to workers,
particularly low wages in a country with no minimum wage law, galvanize
some response. See, for example, ‘Protests, Strikes Continue in
Cambodia: Though their occupations differ, Cambodian workers are united
in their push for a living wage’.
Garment workers are a significant force because their sector is
important to the national economy. Land grabbing and lack of housing
mobilize many people but usually fail to attract support beyond those
effected. See, for example, ‘Housing Activists Clash With Police in
Street Protest’.
Environmental issues, such as deforestation and natural resource
depletion, fail to mobilize the support they need to be effective.

Having noted that, however, Cambodian activists require enormous courage
to take nonviolent action as the possibility of violent state repression
in response to popular mobilization is a real one, as illustrated above
and documented in the Amnesty International report ‘Taking to the
streets: Freedom of peaceful assembly in Cambodia’ from 2015.

Perhaps understandably, given their circumstances, international issues,
such as events in the Middle East, North Korea and the plight of the
Rohingya in neighbouring Myanmar are beyond the concern of most

Economically, Cambodians produce traditional goods for small local
households with industrial production remaining low in a country that is
still industrializing. Building on agriculture (especially rice),
tourism and particularly the garment industry, which provided the basis
for the Cambodian export sector in recent decades, the dictatorship has
been encouraging light manufacturing, such as of electronics and
auto-parts, by establishing ‘special economic zones’ that allow cheap
Cambodian labour to be exploited. Most of the manufacturers are Japanese
and despite poor infrastructure (such as lack of roads and port
facilities), poor production management, poor literacy and numeracy
among the workers, corruption and unreliable energy supplies, Cambodian
factory production is slowly rising to play a part in Japan’s regional
supply chain. In addition, Chinese investment in the construction sector
has grown enormously in recent years and Cambodia is experiencing the
common problem of development being geared to serve elite commercial
interests and tourists rather than the needs (such as affordable
housing) of ordinary people or the environment. See ‘China’s
construction bubble may leave Cambodia’s next generation without a

Environmentally, Cambodia does little to conserve its natural resources.
For example, between 1990 and 2010, Cambodia lost 22% of its forest
cover, or nearly 3,000,000 hectares, largely to logging. There is no
commitment to gauging environmental impact before construction projects
begin and the $US800m Lower Sesan 2 Dam, in the northeast of the
country, has been widely accused of being constructed with little
thought given to local residents (who will be evicted or lose their
livelihood when the dam reservoir fills) or the project’s environmental

Beyond deforestation (through both legal and illegal logging) then,
environmental destruction in Cambodia occurs as a result of large scale
construction and agricultural projects which destroy important wildlife
habitats, but also through massive (legal and illegal) sand mining – see
‘Shifting Sand: How Singapore’s demand for Cambodian sand threatens
ecosystems and undermines good governance’
– poaching of endangered and endemic species, with Cambodian businesses
and political authorities, as well as foreign criminal syndicates and
many transnational corporations from all over the world implicated in
the various aspects of this corruptly-approved and executed destruction.

In the words of Cambodian researcher Tay Sovannarun: ‘The government
just keeps doing business as usual while the rich cliques keep
extracting natural resources and externalizing the cost to the rest of
society.’ Moreover, three members of the NGO Mother Nature – Sun Mala,
Try Sovikea and Sim Somnang – recently served nearly a year in prison
for their efforts to defend the environment and the group was dissolved
by the government in September 2017. See ‘Environmental NGO Mother
Nature dissolved’.

Cambodian Politics

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?

To begin, there is little evidence to suggest that leadership for any
movement to do so will come from within formal political ranks.
Following the court-ordered dissolution of the CNRP on 16 November 2017
– see ‘Cambodia top court dissolves main opposition CNRP party’ – at the behest of Hun Sen,
‘half of their 55 members of parliament fled the country’. And this
dissolution was preceded by actions that had effectively neutralized the
opposition, with two dozen opposition members (including CNRP leader Kem
Sokha) and critics imprisoned in the past year alone, as reported above,
and the rapid flight of Opposition Deputy President Mu Sochua on 3
October after allegedly being notified by a senior official that her
arrest was imminent. See ‘Breaking: CNRP’s Mu Sochua flees country
following “warning” of arrest’.
But while Mu Sochua called for a protest gathering after she had fled,
understandably, nobody dared to protest: ‘Who dares to protest if their
leader runs for their life?’ Sovannarun asks.

Of course, civil society leadership is fraught with danger too.
Prominent political commentator and activist Kem Ley, known for his
trenchant criticism of the Hun Sen dictatorship, was assassinated on 10
July 2016 in Phnom Penh. See ‘Shooting Death of Popular Activist Roils
Cambodia’ and
‘Q&A With Kem Ley: Transparency on Hun Sen Family’s Business Interests
is Vital’.
Ley was the third notable activist to be killed following the union
leader Chea Vichea in 2004 – see ‘Who Killed Chea Vichea?’ – and environmental
activist Wutty Chut in 2012. See ‘Cambodian Environmental Activist Is
But they are not the only activists to suffer this fate.

In addition, plenty of politicians, journalists and activists have been
viciously assaulted by the security forces and members of Hun Sen’s
bodyguard unit – see, for example, ‘Dragged and Beaten: The Cambodian
Government’s Role in the October 2015 Attack on Opposition Politicians’
–  and/or imprisoned by the dictatorship. See ‘Cambodia: Quash Case
Against 11 Opposition Activists: No Legal Basis for Trumped-Up Charges,
Convictions, and Long Sentences’.
In fact, Radio Free Asia keeps a record of ‘Cambodian Opposition
Politicians and Activists Behind Bars’
for activities that the dictatorship does not like, including defending
human rights, land rights and the natural environment.

Moreover, in another recent measure of the blatant brutality of the
dictatorship, Hun Sen publicly suggested that opposition politicians Sam
Rainsy and Kem Sokha ‘would already be dead’ had he known they were
promising to ‘organise a new government’ in the aftermath of the highly
disputed 2013 national election result. See ‘Rainsy and Sokha “would
already be dead”: PM’.
He also used a government-produced video to link the CNRP with US groups
in fomenting a ‘colour revolution’ in Cambodia. See ‘Government ups plot
accusations with new video linking CNRP and US groups to “colour

In one response to Hun Sen’s ‘would already be dead’ statement, British
human rights lawyer Richard Rogers, who had filed a complaint asking the
International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the Cambodian ruling
elite for widespread human rights violations in 2014, commented that it
was simply more evidence of the government’s willingness to persecute
political dissidents. ‘It shows that he is willing to order the murder
of his own people if they challenge his rule’. Moreover: ‘These are not
the words of a modern leader who claims to lead a democracy.’ See
‘Rainsy and Sokha “would already be dead”: PM’.
Whether Hun Sen is even sane is a question that no-one asks.

So what can Cambodians do? Fortunately, there is a long history of
repressive regimes being overthrown by nonviolent grassroots movements.
And nonviolent action has proven powerfully effective in Cambodia as the
Buddhist monk Maha Gosananda, and his supporters demonstrated on their
19-day peace walk from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh through war ravaged Khmer
Rouge territory in Cambodia in May 1993, defying the expectations of the
United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) coordinators
at the time that they would be killed by the Khmer Rouge. See ‘Maha
Gosananda, a true peace maker’.
However, for the Hun Sen dictatorship to be removed, Cambodians will be
well served by a thoughtful and comprehensive strategy that takes
particular account of their unique circumstances.

A framework to plan and implement a strategy to remove the dictatorship
is explained in Nonviolent Defense/Liberation Strategy with Sovannarun’s
Khmer translation of this strategy here.

This strategic framework explains what is necessary to remove the
dictatorship and, among consideration of many vital issues, elaborates
what is necessary to maintain strategic coordination when leaders are at
high risk of assassination, minimize the risk of violent repression
while also ensuring that the movement is not hijacked by government or
foreign provocateurs whose purpose is to subvert the movement by
destroying its nonviolent character – see, for example, ‘Nonviolent
Action: Minimizing the Risk of Violent Repression’
– as well as deal with foreign governments (such as those of China, the
European Union, Japan and the USA) who (categorically or by inaction)
support the dictatorship, sometimes by supplying military weapons
suitable for use against the domestic population.

Sovannarun is not optimistic about the short-term prospects for his
country: Too many mistakes have been repeated too often. But he is
committed to the nonviolent struggle to liberate Cambodia from its
dictatorship and recognizes that the corrupt electoral process cannot
restore democracy or enable Cambodians to meaningfully address the vast
range of social, political, economic and environmental challenges they

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