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09PHNOMPENH489 WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE HARD-EARNED POLITICAL SPACE IN CAMBODIA, WHY, AND WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT IT?

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PHNOM PENH 000489

 

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

 

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, P, D, IO, DRL

NSC FOR L. PHU

PACOM FOR POLAD

 

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/14/2019

TAGS: PGOV, PHUM, KDEM, KJUS, PREL, EAID, CB

SUBJECT: WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE HARD-EARNED POLITICAL

SPACE IN CAMBODIA, WHY, AND WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT IT?

 

REF: A. PHNOM PENH 469

B. PHNOM PENH 413

C. PHNOM PENH 410

D. PHNOM PENH 394

E. PHNOM PENH 387

F. PHNOM PENH 273

G. 05 PHNOM PENH 1892

H. 05 PHNOM PENH 210

I. 05 PHNOM PENH 204

 

Classified By: AMBASSADOR CAROL A. RODLEY FOR REASONS 1.4 (B, D)

 

1. (C) SUMMARY: The wider political space seen in Cambodia

during the run-up to the 2008 National Assembly elections

last July is undergoing an autocratic nip-and-tuck as the

ruling Cambodian People\’s Party (CPP) exerts one of its

periodic reining-in exercises in the name of greater social

order and security. The last three months have seen at least

ten defamation and disinformation suits against opposition

party members, journalists and private citizens. The jailing

of an opposition editor and the shuttering of an opposition

newspaper have many human rights activists commenting on

threats to fundamental freedoms of expression. The Ministry

of Foreign Affairs took a broad interpretation of

international legal norms on interference in internal affairs

when, in response to the Ambassador\’s comments on endemic

corruption (Ref D), it issued a diplomatic note to all

diplomatic missions in early June. While threats of violence

or physical intimidation remain significantly lower than just

five years ago, the CPP is mounting a sophisticated

rules-based campaign to chip away at free speech. Civil

society and human rights monitors worry that more of these

\”rule of law\” tactics will be used in pending legislation to

curb the activities of NGOs (NGO Law) and restrict freedom of

assembly (Peaceful Demonstrations Law).

 

2. (C) The CPP\’s roots as a hegemonic power structure and

the approved use of UNTAC-era laws that had always emphasized

peace and security at the expense of political and civil

rights are among the causes for this new wave of defamation

cases. When CPP leaders perceive a choice between

pluralistic liberal democracy and order, stability and

economic development, they will exploit that conflict to

maximize their own power and preempt opposition challenges to

their political authority. A familiar pattern of

post-election crackdowns seen in 1995, 1998, and 2005 (often

using defamation as the muzzle of choice), is playing out

once again and CPP is following the same playbook that

FUNCINPEC First Prime Minister Ranariddh used in the past.

The biggest difference now is the much reduced violence, the

more sophisticated curtailment of wide-open freedoms, and the

appearance that CPP is making a bid to be the last party

standing with no viable alternative in sight. Embassy will

continue to speak out on these threats to democracy and human

rights and is already engaged in a long-term campaign to

engage the government, reach out to NGOs and civil society,

and stand up for basic freedoms while being cognizant of

underlying fears by leaders of threats to order (that may be

fueled by legitimate fears over the poor economy, joblessness

among a huge youth population, and high crime rates).

Continuing to build trust and understanding with the

government, even when we disagree, is an important part of

our ability to influence the outcome here; in order to do

this, some messages need to be delivered privately. While

many in the mainstream human rights and democracy NGO\’s

support this approach, and indeed follow it themselves,

others and some members of the political opposition will

criticize it. Finally it is important to note the current

constriction of political space is a phenomenon almost

entirely confined to Phnom Penh; recent visits to a number

of provinces reveal no significant impact or increased

tension. END SUMMARY.

 

Freedoms Won

————

 

PHNOM PENH 00000489 002.2 OF 005

 

3. (C) While Freedom House still lists Cambodia as \”not

free\”, some of the sub-scores under political and civil

liberties have improved modestly over recent years. In the

year-long run up to national elections in 2007-2008,

Cambodia\’s political space opened up perceptibly. Opposition

members of parliament generally were more candid in their

assessments of government failings, relatively crude rhetoric

was a daily occurrence in an expanded set of newspapers (some

of which were established solely to play obvious partisan

roles), and leading opposition newspaper Moneasekar Khmer

increased its circulation five-fold to 5000 copies a day.

More radio stations aired more opposition broadcasts daily in

the first half of 2008 than in all of 2007. While the CPP

still dominated the media, the official 30-day campaign

period saw the most balanced coverage of the 10 other

contesting opposition parties than ever before. The

opposition Sam Rainsy Party was a big winner in this effort

at greater equity during the campaign, and emerged from the

elections as the strongest party after the CPP, despite

generally a mediocre campaigning strategy and a failure to

overcome the nationalist sentiment generated by the

government\’s success in obtaining World Heritage inscription

for Preah Vihear. It is true that Sam Rainsy faced a

defamation suit lodged by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign

Minister Hor Namhong, but that appeared never to be more than

an issue of personal honor, and was allowed to be continued

until after the election. One ham-fisted effort to detain

opposition editor Dam Sith ended in his release and the

dismissal of the case after Dam Sith offered a simple

apology.

 

A \”Perfect Storm\” of Litigation

——————————-

 

4. (C) All of that changed when, in an April 23 press

conference Sam Rainsy Parliamentarian Mu Sochua expressed

great offense at an off-the-cuff statement by Prime Minister

Hun Sen on April 4 and announced her intent to sue the Prime

Minister for defamation. This openly hostile (and obviously

personal) attack set off a war of words between the main

protagonists and in the early stages the leading civil

society advocates urged the parties to take the matter out of

the courts. But reported overtures to Mu Sochua to apologize

and be done with it (many thought she could not build a case

when, in fact, PM Hun Sen never mentioned her name) were met

with principled statements about obtaining justice in

Cambodia. In the end, the government did what it has done so

many times before and unleashed an unprecedented wave of

defamation and disinformation suits (Refs A-F). SRP leader

Tioulong Saumura likened these suits, some of which carried

jail time, to being dropped into the middle of a typhoon (Ref

A) and told us recently that the Sam Rainsy Party would seek

not to confront the CPP where it is strongest: in the courts

controlled by the executive. (COMMENT: Saumura\’s analysis

was essentially that an SRP member taunted Hun Sen into

playing his game on his field and now the rest of SRP, upon

consideration, realizes that they are no match, and that

there is nothing to be gained from this folly. END COMMENT.)

 

Why Did it Happen?

——————

 

5. (C) CPP confrontation with those who challenge its

authority is not new, although the continued decline in

violence and physical threats and intimidation are welcome

improvements. Usually these conflicts occur in the period

after elections, when parties are consolidating their

positions. Soon after the signing of the Paris Peace

Agreement, before Cambodia\’s first election in 1993, the CPP

response — whether sanctioned by the leadership or not — to

the creation of a new party was to attack violently the

political players. UNTAC reinforced the peace and security

message and the UNTAC law criminalized defamation in order to

keep the Khmer Rouge propaganda machine at bay. In 1995

internal purges in the FUNCINPEC party was part of a

CPP-FUNCINPEC leadership agreement to get rid of critics and

 

PHNOM PENH 00000489 003 OF 005

 

reflected the hard-ball politics that Cambodia has just

emerged from: Sam Rainsy, Son Sann, and Prince Norodom

Sirivudh were all purged that year. First Prime Minister

Ranariddh, who was not unfamiliar with the uses of

defamation, said that only \”constructive\” criticism was

allowed. After the 1998 elections, violence against

opponents remained a dominant theme until a new government

was formed. The 2003 elections resulted in a political

standoff for almost a year. After the new coalition

government was formed in 2004, the CPP again turned its

attention to its opponents. Throughout 2005 at least six

defamation suits were brought against Sam Rainsy, Mam

Sonando, Rong Chhun, Kem Sokha, Yeng Virak, and Pa Nguon

Teang. The parliamentary immunity of Rainsy was lifted in

February 2005 along with that of SRP MP Cheam Channy (Refs H,

I). Late in 2005, Hun Sen said that freedom of speech must

be balanced against the interests of social order and

stability — he was reacting especially to those critics of

his policy regarding Cambodian-Vietnam border negotiations

(Ref G).

 

6. (C) It was also Hun Sen who led the effort to

de-criminalize defamation in early 2006. By that time,

Rainsy had been pardoned, Cheam Channy\’s sentence was reduced

and the other critics were released. However, the pattern of

CPP tactics to exert control is clear: silence critics

through the threat of the law. With the defamation charge no

longer carrying jail time, the government now turns to

disinformation or incitement charges when it wants to make a

point.

 

7. (C) In the new multi-party pluralistic democracy of

Cambodia, the government has still not developed a thick

skin, the sensitivity to criticism is high, and the desire to

bring opponents down a notch still remains with the CPP as

part of its nature, history and ideology. With the 2008

elections well behind it, the government can now turn its

attention to its critics. Hun Sen, perceiving the need to

deal with his own \”blue\” conservative faction in the CPP (old

warriors Chea Sim and Hang Samrin), must show that he has the

power to enforce strict measures to uphold social order.

(COMMENT: At least Hun Sen appears pragmatic enough to make

deals with those about to be jailed (Ref A); however, Sok An

lately appears to be more dogmatic as evidenced by his June

19 speech to the National Assembly on the responsibilities of

the free press and his reported obstinate refusal to accept

an apology from journalist Hang Chakra, who was jailed on

disinformation charges for articles on the corrupt circles

surrounding Sok An. END COMMENT.)

 

Other Potential Threats: It\’s All About Implementation

——————————————— ———

 

8. (C) Further threats to a more open political atmosphere

are seen in two new proposed draft laws on demonstrations and

on NGO\’s. The NGO Law first surfaced in draft in 2006 but

was then shelved when a number of donors joined NGO groups in

opposing its strict reporting requirements. The draft

illustrated clearly that the government\’s concern was

primarily with NGOs engaged in partisan politics. Since

then, the Ministry of Interior has revisited the law and

reportedly is considering consulting with civil society on a

new proposed draft NGO Law that, among other things, requires

annual reports made to the Ministry of Interior. In the

meantime, CPP party leaders have noticeably increased their

rhetoric against NGOs that the CPP claims criticize the

government but which are themselves corrupt, non-transparent,

and not accountable to anyone. This past week, allegations

of corruption against the former Cambodian Human Rights

Center surfaced just as its former head, Kem Sokha, was

preparing for his Human Rights Party annual conference.

 

9. (C) Similarly, a draft Law on Peaceful Demonstrations —

which went through earlier public consultations — is wending

its way through the draft law review process. Although

critics say that the law\’s provisions are vague on limiting

 

PHNOM PENH 00000489 004.3 OF 005

 

demonstrations that might affect \”public order\” (because the

term is not defined), SRP parliamentarian Son Chhay makes a

point that applies to many of Cambodia\’s laws in the current

context: the law itself is probably better than the

UNTAC-era law, he said, but it is the implementing decrees

and the implementation itself that counts. Only when the

details of implementation are considered will we know how

onerous, or how good, a law will be. The implementation of

the disinformation article of the UNTAC Law is an example of

restrictive interpretation. And while there are reports that

the new penal code will repeal the UNTAC articles and will

not apply disinformation measures to journalists, the one

exception is if national security is involved.

 

10. (C) According to Sok An, national security is virtually

always affected in defamation cases, because the critical

articles rely on \”lying sources\” and the \”lies are prepared

in advance with bad intentions and are against the

government.\” As Sok An told the Ambassador (Ref C), whole

subject areas such as Angkor Wat or the borders are off

limits as any criticism can lead to instability and

\”anarchy.\” Just as the U.S. imposed new legislative

restrictions in response to the 9/11 attacks, so too the RGC

would have to impose restrictions on criticisms of the

government, Sok An said.

 

A Concerted Response

——————–

 

11. (SBU) In response to the degradation of human rights

over the past months, the Embassy is engaging the government

directly to encourage senior leaders to demonstrate

commitment to democracy and human rights. In part, we are

assuming that the message of political dominance has been

sent, the game of defamation has grown tiresome and that the

government will want to be seen in a better light by the

international community. In our message, the Embassy is

focusing on a number of themes to re-direct the government\’s

thinking. First, that potential investors will be disturbed

by the underlying political instability that the defamation

cases bring. Cambodia is desperate for more foreign direct

investment (FDI) and will listen intently to this argument to

focus on the positive to attract more FDI. In fact, we will

argue, the government appears more confident if it allows

critics to speak, presents its own best case, and adapts

accordingly. These defamation cases are seen by the outside

world as a sign of weakness and not — as the government

clearly believes — as a sign of strength. The Cambodian

leadership is deeply concerned for its international

legitimacy and we will appeal to the government to pay

attention to the negative publicity it has drawn to itself.

Finally, embracing democratic values will secure greater

stability for the country in which the people have a say,

there is a means to vent concerns and release political

pressures that otherwise may build up over time.

 

12. (SBU) Either alone or with other missions, the Ambassador

will publicly pay a visit to imprisoned newspaper editor Hang

Chakra. The Ambassador has held a series of meetings with

ministers and Hun Sen\’s close advisors, including DPM Sok An

(Refs C, D) and DPM Sar Kheng, Om Yentieng, and Minister of

Justice Ang Vong Vathana, to review the RGC\’s recent

back-sliding, to question the perceived threats to freedom,

and to propose a different way forward to win legitimacy

among the international community. A number of Embassy

officers are conducting similar meetings at the working level

in key ministries. As we listen to government concerns and

build confidence in our relationship and in our intentions,

we hope to counter some RGC officials\’ perceptions that U.S.

support for pluralistic democracy is a vote against the

current government. We need to de-personalize this

confrontation in order to make progress. Although the Sam

Rainsy Party thinks it has found a way out (Ref A), we will

engage with the political parties to see where a more

meaningful role can be found for them to work with the

government, which in turn may require a more responsible and

 

PHNOM PENH 00000489 005 OF 005

 

less confrontational posture by the opposition. Embassy

officers will also spend the next months engaging regularly

with the NGO community and civil society to review with them

our public position and to build confidence that a firm

resolve can help see us through this difficult period, while

aiming for more progress on democracy and human rights.

 

13. (SBU) The Embassy will reinforce some of the same

pro-democracy messages to preserve political freedoms that we

have made since the parliamentary immunity of Mu Sochua and

Ho Vann was lifted June 22 at which time A/DCM joined the

U.K., German, and French mission deputy heads in front of the

National Assembly to express concern about the surprise

inclusion of Ho Vann\’s case, the closed parliamentary session

to remove MPs\’ immunity and the threat posed by this action

to freedom of expression. We expect to work more closely

with like-minded diplomatic missions in next few weeks, and

to include missions based in Bangkok such as the Netherlands

and Sweden, which take an interest. The ASEAN Human Rights

Body now being established may prove to be another venue to

carry our message, although this is a new entity in Cambodia

and may take time to develop.

 

14. (SBU) The Embassy has a public diplomacy component woven

into our strategy. Up to the present, we have responded to

local press inquiries with expressions of concern for press

freedoms and free speech and to reiterate our strong support

for democratic freedoms, In our public remarks, we will

adapt some of the same themes raised by President Obama in

Russia and again in Africa: that America\’s interest is in

democratic governments that protect the rights of their

people, adding in our context that the rule of law must be

consistent with Cambodia\’s own constitution which enshrines

freedoms of expression and assembly.

 

15. (SBU) As embassy engages with the government, NGOs and

civil society and projects our public diplomacy message to

the public, we will report regularly on developments.

 

16. (SBU) COMMENT: Although Cambodia\’s ruling party has

conducted its cyclical reining-in exercises before, we view

with real concern the recent closing of opposition newspaper

Moneaksekar Khmer, the legal threats to its publisher Dam

Sith, and the jailing of opposition journalist Hang Chakra.

Legal attacks against MP\’s for their outspoken criticism

sends a signal to Cambodian society that the lines are being

re-drawn on what is permissible to say and these new lines

are far from where they should be in an environment of

genuine free speech.

 

17. (SBU) COMMENT CONT.: Aside from the threat to stability

that a few might feel by public remarks on corruption, there

is genuine fear among Cambodia\’s ruling party about the

increasing joblessness among a large, youthful population and

increased criminal activity because of the lack of other

opportunities. We need to understand and be responsive to

Cambodia\’s new reality, to listen intently to what the

leadership is worrying about and to show that we have a

relationship of trust. This will help to reopen the

political space lost over the last few months, a loss that is

by no means irreparable. Should the proposed campaign result

in no movement by the government within the next few months,

we shall have to re-evaluate and consider a more outspoken

posture and joint action with the larger donor community.

For the time being, measured diplomacy combined with

reassurance of support to civil society and a public

diplomacy campaign may gain a beachhead for broader

democratic trends and a renewed commitment to human rights.

RODLEY

Written by thaicables

July 21, 2011 at 5:42 am

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