PHNOM PENH: The Cambodian government is pre-emptively setting the groundwork for a difficult period in national politics, observers say, by launching a stunning and sweeping pre-emptive white paper, targeted at Western governments, diplomats, the media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
In a paper entitled “To Tell the Truth” and released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation late Monday (Apr 10), the government vowed to “set the record straight”, making unequivocal statements about its sovereignty, commitment to democracy and historical legacy.
Among many thrusts throughout the 10-page document, it accuses foreign organisations and governments - namely the United States - of a “campaign of disinformation” and of supporting “racists and Holocaust non-believers”.
“Sheer contempt” is used to describe a “mindboggling” statement in 2015 by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, that contemporary Cambodia needed to be held accountable for the modern-day human rights situation.
It sets the groundwork ahead of commune elections in early June, which will act as a litmus test for the national vote next year.
Criticism has already been levelled at the ruling party for actions taken in recent months, such as changing the Law on Political Parties, widely seen outside the government as tilting the political climate further in its favour. By laying out its agenda against dissenting voices, both inside and outside the country, the CPP is steeling itself for a potentially tumultuous period.
It may also be the clearest proof yet that Cambodia is willing to sever its ties with the West, emboldened by ever-improving, economically advantageous relations with China.
“Cambodia has now officially produced its piece de resistance against the Western narrative,” said Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy”.
“(The relationship) has gone off the deep end.”
"HALL OF MIRRORS"
With bilateral trade worth nearly US$5 billion last year and Beijing largely uninterested in how Cambodia handles its domestic affairs, Prime Minister Hun Sen appears content to have selected sides, and now pick a fight.
“A new phase of Chinese-backed authoritarian capitalism - emphasis on stability - has begun,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”.
“Cambodia is making it clear that it is no longer willing to tolerate Western criticism. Confident of Chinese backing, it is staring at them over the poker table and daring them to up the ante,” he said.
While the relationship is healthy now, the strategy has risks, Sophal argues. “It would be short-sighted to think that Cambodia could cast its lot with only one partner, who while generous, isn’t going to hold-up the sky for it,” he said.
However, Beijing’s no-strings support is at odds with the caveats implored by Western donors, a constant irritation to the ruling party. The paper uses history to call out the hypocrisy of those values in perhaps the most definitive way in decades.
It draws on the United States’ backing of the Khmer Rouge for years after that regime’s power had diminished, up to 1991, despite being responsible for genocide and other devastating war crimes.
Once again, the paper claims, the “several” Western governments are supporting “the wrong side” and the resulting “blaming, criticism, isolation, threats of market closure and sanctions” are contributing to a lack of stability, which Hun Sen desperately seeks to maintain.
For years, the government has argued stridently for the preservation of peace and order at any cost and used it as an enabler of some of its hardline approaches to the national opposition, public rallies and criminal justice.
“Cambodia has been submerged, months after months, years after years, by reports from opposition media, biased NGOs and misinformed institutions, which twisted historical facts and events in an attempt to portray a negative image of Cambodia and to lay the blame on the government,” the paper reads.
Strangio suggests that while the source of the government’s ire can be seen as legitimate, the reasons for raising these decade-old arguments is more strategic.
“Rather than making a nuanced historical point, the MFA is wielding history as a cudgel against its opponents. The purpose here is not ‘truth’; it is the propagation of a political mythology,” he said.
“It accomplishes a hall of mirrors and obfuscates the real chronicles of Cambodia’s modern history - making it appear that the villain is now the hero and the hero is now the villain,” Sophal said.
Some of the strongest language is saved for the national opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in an attempt to undermine its mantra and intentions.
Recently installed CNRP leader Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, who stood down after being charged with numerous crimes that could have jeopardised his party’s legality, do not escape rebuke.
Rainsy is accused of double speak, inciting hatred of the Vietnamese at home while advocating democracy and human rights abroad. It is not a new argument but one used to link favourable treatment and media coverage of the opposition with immoral pursuits. Despite Rainsy’s demise, it is timely, less than two months out from elections.
Kem is labelled a Cambodian Holocaust denier, language Strangio describes as “striking” and possibly designed to resonate with a Western audience, rather than Cambodians. “Like everything else, however, the statement pushes the parallel far beyond what is reasonable,” he said.
“CPP government accusations will only backfire,” Kem Monovithya, the CNRP’s deputy director of public affairs, said in response to the paper. “The Cambodian people know who has blood on their hands.”
She confirmed that the party would ensure it maintained “good ties with the free world” as well as “important friend” China and dismissed the government’s rhetoric as little more than an attempt to undermine those who might be critical about the political situation.
“This confrontational paper further shows the international community that their stamp of approval on legitimacy matters. So, they need to remain vigilant of the elections,” she said.
“The reality is the Cambodia government needs them to survive.”