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Cambodia: The kingdom that cries wolf

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Judy Taing

17 Nov 2012

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In the commonly known fable, “the boy who cried wolf,” a young boy repeatedly fools villagers into believing that a wolf is attacking his sheep, only for them to continually rush to his aid and learn that there were no such occurrences. Finally, when a wolf does appear, and the boy makes his usual cry, no one comes to his rescue. Many different cultures have their own character and plot variants to espouse the same lesson – no one believes a liar.

There must have been a point in Cambodia’s modern history where government claims for democratic reforms were believed by the Cambodian people and the international community, or at least received with healthy doses of skepticism. Over time, such claims have not ceased, but they have all revealed themselves to be entirely empty and unbelievable. With an appointed Prime Minister in power for over 25 years and counting, and with his party’s likely “win” in the 2013 national elections, it is clear that Cambodia is headed anywhere but towards a democracy.

All eyes are turned to Cambodia this next handful of days as US President Barack Obama visits the country for his first time, and the first time for any sitting US president. In short, this is big deal. So how does the Cambodian government prepare? Along with setting out the red carpet, the authorities are also cracking down on their own people, locking individuals up for the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

The Cambodian people know that the government cries wolf when it comes to democracy, hence their spray-painted rooftop messages stating “S.O.S.” alongside the President’s photograph for him to see as he flies into Phnom Penh. Approximately 30-40 armed personnel and local authorities immediately confronted the eight message-writers in their homes, and after refusing to remove their messages, they were taken and held at the police station in Po Sen Chey district. They were released a day later but their messages have since been taken down or painted over by the authorities. The government claims that the messages were a threat to security, however it is evident that they simply want to cover up any indication that the people are desperate for help. The arrest itself validates the people’s “S.O.S.” plea.

Further to this, the Cambodian government has been placing pressure upon venue owners to prevent any civil society gatherings to take place ahead and during the President’s visit. Community organisers have had to cancel their events after venue owners refuse to host the event, provide food and beverages, or they simply shut down the electricity mid-meeting. Again, the authorities claim that this action is to maintain public order and safety. Again, another wolf cry.

So, when the President flies in, he may not see any messages and the streets may appear calm, but this is yet another trick from the Cambodian government.

Do not be fooled – this is a government that remains one of the most corrupt in the world and continues to rise in power as its people fall deeper into oppression. After bartering off the lives of the urban poor by forcibly obtaining their land and selling it to large development companies, the government goes further by harassing and arresting any of the displaced that dare to contest. After large international outcry, the government agreed to ban land deals, however since the ban, the Prime Minister has signed off on over 65,000 hectares of land. What was the nuance of the government’s wolf cry this time? Apparently all of these land concessions were already agreed upon prior to the ban. Sure. Activists and journalists have tried reporting on land-grabbing and deforestation issues in the country, but the government has zero-tolerance for any mention of their plunder. Even the bravest of activists, such as environmentalist Chut Wutty, are shot down.

Despite the Cambodian government’s friendlier face to the international community (Cambodia was this year’s Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and also petitioned for a non-permanent UN Security Council seat) its domestic modus operandi has been to shoot people down, lock them up, or keep them in the dark. The latter point speaks to human rights education, which is largely non-existent in the country. Many local non-governmental organisations have tried to lead human rights training courses throughout Cambodia, only to be met in the same fashion as the “S.O.S.” message-writers. If the people do not know of their basic rights, then how can they fight for them? Those who do know of universal human rights dare not speak out, or are in serious danger if they do. The Cambodian government, for its lack of honesty, is surely cunning.

One of the biggest wolf cries, which comes from the region but is led by Cambodia, is the so-called ASEAN human rights declaration, which is likely to be passed on 18 November. The Declaration in its current form threatens the very foundations of universal human rights, which is premised on the fact that they apply to all humans, everywhere. The Declaration takes this six-decade long global notion and makes it contingent upon national and regional contexts, meaning that international standards of rights realisation will no longer apply to Southeast Asia. This essentially gives the ASEAN member states the right to derogate on rights.

Where the “wolf-cry” fable breaks away from the Cambodian reality is that, eventually, the boy tells the truth. In the end, he cries wolf because there actually is a wolf. There has yet to be a moment where the Cambodian government says “democratic reform” and for there to be any such thing. Remember, the moral of the fable is that no believes a liar. Even if there were moments where things appeared to move in the right direction for Cambodia, time and practise has shown that the government functions in a “one-step forward and two-steps back” manner.  Democratic reform cannot occur through half-hearted, piecemeal efforts. There must be large sweeping changes, sustained over time, for non-believers to finally trust that the Cambodian government means democratic reform when it says democratic reform.

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