A Tradition of Political Violence and the Quest to Break the Vicious Circle


 A Tradition of Political Violence and the Quest to Break the Vicious Circle

Cambodia's government has had frequent recourse to political violence. The assassination of Dr. Kem Ley in 2016 was just the latest example. Smartphones and social media meant that his killing was instantly understood in Cambodia and across the world. Technology has not always been so powerful. Many killings in earlier years received less instant attention.

The examples are legion. Thun Bun Ly, a journalist who had worked for the Khmer Nation Party, was killed in Phnom Penh in May 1996. Trade union leader Chea Vichea, who organised garment workers in an attempt to secure better pay and working conditions and who supported the Sam Rainsy Party, was injured in the 1997 grenade attack on myself and my supporters. Having refused to go into exile in the wake of death threats, he was shot dead in January 2004. His brother in January 2017 asked the government to stop pretending to investigate the killing. Journalist Khim Sambor, who worked for the pro-opposition newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer, and his son Khat Sarintheata, were assassinated in Phnom Penh in July 2008. Chut Wutty, an environmental activist who worked to uncover illegal deforestation, was shot dead at a police checkpoint in April 2012. Three weeks later, a 14 year-old girl Heng Chentha was shot and killed by police and soldiers evicting land-grab protestors in Kratie.

The historical weakness of Cambodian governance means that the country now lives under a personal, rather than a state, dictatorship. Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit is used to stifle dissent. It has been under his direct control since it was created in 1995. Three members of the unit were convicted of assaulting two opposition MPs outside parliament in October 2015. All three were subsequently promoted to the rank of general.

Some estimates put the total number of Cambodian generals at more than 2,000. The title is used as a way of rewarding political loyalty with a salary increase and in many cases has no military meaning. When Cambodian generals meet their foreign counterparts, the Cambodians often have to reduce their rank for the occasion to avoid the obvious absurdity. This overloaded military is a drain on a poor country's resources. Cambodia is not fighting anyone.

The vicious circle rests in the fact that the use of violence alienates the population from the government and isolates the government from the international community. So the government feels more threatened and resorts again to the only methods that seem to work. A danger for Cambodia is that Hun Sen will use his private military power to seek to impose his son Hun Manet as premier. This would only perpetuate and worsen the use of violence to underwrite power.

The alternative path of dialogue has always been open, and remains open now. This is much harder in the short term, and requires respect and understanding on the level of individuals who have experienced Cambodia, through no choice of their own, in very different ways.

Dialogue does not apply just to politicians, but must embrace ordinary Cambodians of all political persuasions. It is through individual reconciliations that the will and the means to renew Cambodia can be found. In the wake of the 2013 national election results, I sought to create a culture of constructive dialogue with the government. This had important and lasting results. The reform of the National Election Committee and the improvement of voter lists agreed between the parties means that there is a much greater chance of the views of Cambodians being accurately reflected in the elections of 2017 and 2018 than in the past. On the policy level, my proposal, made directly to Prime Minister Hun Sen, to cap microfinance lending rates at 18%, was adopted, albeit two years later. This by itself is just a start, but it will help to alleviate the suffering of those who need cash and have no other way to get it than to turning to unscrupulous loan sharks.

The use of violence in Cambodian politics was not invented by the current government. The roots run much deeper: the challenge is more profound. In the Angkor era, when a new Brahman king took over, he would destroy all vestiges of the preceding Buddhist monarch, and vice-versa. In modern times, the only relatively peaceful transfer of power was the negotiation of independence from France. Each subsequent transfer of power was accompanied and followed by catastrophic violence. We must accept that the spirit of revenge is useless, and that there are no Cambodian enemies, only Cambodians.

A working basis of trust and cooperation is essential everywhere that democracy is practised, even - especially! - between fierce opponents. A peaceful transfer of power between rivals is a historical hurdle that Cambodia must one day overcome, allowing an honourably defeated party to appeal at future elections for a fresh mandate from the people to govern. There is no solution in violence. Its use simply delays the day of reckoning, causing needless, irreversible suffering in the meantime. Dialogue based on mutual confidence and respect is the only path that will serve the whole country, including supporters of the CPP. Otherwise we will remain doomed forever to use killing to underwrite governance.

Those now in government who engage in good-faith dialogue have nothing to fear in terms of legal redress once their time in power ends, as end it must. They will be treated with the respect that their courage deserves. I remain ready as I have always been to participate in our process of national dialogue.

Cambodia's government has had frequent recourse to political violence. The assassination of Dr. Kem Ley in 2016 was just the latest example. Smartphones and social media meant that his killing was instantly understood in Cambodia and across the world. Technology has not always been so powerful. Many killings in earlier years received less instant attention.

The examples are legion. Thun Bun Ly, a journalist who had worked for the Khmer Nation Party, was killed in Phnom Penh in May 1996. Trade union leader Chea Vichea, who organised garment workers in an attempt to secure better pay and working conditions and who supported the Sam Rainsy Party, was injured in the 1997 grenade attack on myself and my supporters. Having refused to go into exile in the wake of death threats, he was shot dead in January 2004. His brother in January 2017 asked the government to stop pretending to investigate the killing. Journalist Khim Sambor, who worked for the pro-opposition newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer, and his son Khat Sarintheata, were assassinated in Phnom Penh in July 2008. Chut Wutty, an environmental activist who worked to uncover illegal deforestation, was shot dead at a police checkpoint in April 2012. Three weeks later, a 14 year-old girl Heng Chentha was shot and killed by police and soldiers evicting land-grab protestors in Kratie.

The historical weakness of Cambodian governance means that the country now lives under a personal, rather than a state, dictatorship. Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit is used to stifle dissent. It has been under his direct control since it was created in 1995. Three members of the unit were convicted of assaulting two opposition MPs outside parliament in October 2015. All three were subsequently promoted to the rank of general.

Some estimates put the total number of Cambodian generals at more than 2,000. The title is used as a way of rewarding political loyalty with a salary increase and in many cases has no military meaning. When Cambodian generals meet their foreign counterparts, the Cambodians often have to reduce their rank for the occasion to avoid the obvious absurdity. This overloaded military is a drain on a poor country's resources. Cambodia is not fighting anyone.

The vicious circle rests in the fact that the use of violence alienates the population from the government and isolates the government from the international community. So the government feels more threatened and resorts again to the only methods that seem to work. A danger for Cambodia is that Hun Sen will use his private military power to seek to impose his son Hun Manet as premier. This would only perpetuate and worsen the use of violence to underwrite power.

The alternative path of dialogue has always been open, and remains open now. This is much harder in the short term, and requires respect and understanding on the level of individuals who have experienced Cambodia, through no choice of their own, in very different ways.

Dialogue does not apply just to politicians, but must embrace ordinary Cambodians of all political persuasions. It is through individual reconciliations that the will and the means to renew Cambodia can be found. In the wake of the 2013 national election results, I sought to create a culture of constructive dialogue with the government. This had important and lasting results. The reform of the National Election Committee and the improvement of voter lists agreed between the parties means that there is a much greater chance of the views of Cambodians being accurately reflected in the elections of 2017 and 2018 than in the past. On the policy level, my proposal, made directly to Prime Minister Hun Sen, to cap microfinance lending rates at 18%, was adopted, albeit two years later. This by itself is just a start, but it will help to alleviate the suffering of those who need cash and have no other way to get it than to turning to unscrupulous loan sharks.

The use of violence in Cambodian politics was not invented by the current government. The roots run much deeper: the challenge is more profound. In modern times, the only relatively peaceful transfer of power was the negotiation of independence from France. Each subsequent transfer of power was accompanied and followed by catastrophic violence. We must accept that the spirit of revenge is useless, and that there are no Cambodian enemies, only Cambodians.

A working basis of trust and cooperation is essential everywhere that democracy is practised, even - especially! - between fierce opponents. A peaceful transfer of power between rivals is a historical hurdle that Cambodia must one day overcome, allowing an honourably defeated party to appeal at future elections for a fresh mandate from the people to govern. There is no solution in violence. Its use simply delays the day of reckoning, causing needless, irreversible suffering in the meantime. Dialogue based on mutual confidence and respect is the only path that will serve the whole country, including supporters of the CPP. Otherwise we will remain doomed forever to use killing to underwrite governance.

Those now in government who engage in good-faith dialogue have nothing to fear in terms of legal redress once their time in power ends, as end it must. They will be treated with the respect that their courage deserves. I remain ready as I have always been to participate in our process of national dialogue.