Asia in Review Archive


Date of AiR edition

News summary

29 December 2020

United States spending bill provides conditional assistance to Sri Lanka, Cambodia

(lm) Sri Lanka and Cambodia are among 31 countries that may benefit from US assistance under a $2.3 trillion COVID-19 stimulus relief and omnibus spending bill, which US President Donald Trump signed into law on December 27. Coming against the larger backdrop of an increasingly dysfunctional Sino-US relationship, US financial support will, however, be contingent on the US Secretary of State certifying that both countries, inter alia, assert their sovereignty against influence by China. [Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021

Colombo, for one thing, is also expected to promote reconciliation between ethnic and religious groups, increase transparency and accountability in governance, and bring perpetrators to justice. The development comes after the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board of Directors decided to discontinue the proposed US$ 480 million compact with Sri Lanka earlier this month, citing a lack of partner country engagement as reason for the decision [see AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3]. [Economy Next] [Daily FT] [Colombo Gazette]

As for Cambodia, the US spending bill states that the country must be able to verify that its Ream Naval Base, other military installations, and “dual use facilities such as the Dara Sakor development project” [see AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4] maintain their neutrality. These conditions follow expressions of concern from US officials about the potential for China to host military assets in Cambodia. At the center of concerns has been the Ream Naval Base, where new satellite images show further work underway to prepare for an expansion of the facilities [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. Denying Chinese involvement, at the ASEAN summit last month, Cambodia’s Minister of Economy and Finance reinforced the country’s stance on not allowing foreign military presence within its borders, referring to the nation’s sovereignty and neutrality [AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. [Nikkei Asia]

29 December 2020

Cambodia: Musicians handed jail terms for criticizing government

(lm) A Cambodian court on December 22 convicted two musicians and sentenced them to up to a year-and-a half in prison on charges of incitement over their rhymes about social injustice and loss of sovereign territory. The verdict prompted rights group to condemn the verdict as a form of “intimidation” against outspoken members of the country’s youth. [Bangkok Post]

The same day, a provincial court sentenced the owner of a local media outlet to 20 months in prison and fined him $5,000 for “incitement” after he reported on a land dispute involving a military officer in a protected forest—a case that other journalists had also covered. Following the arrest, the Ministry of Information also withdrew the broadcasting station’s operating license, saying the station broadcast “exaggerated content.” [Radio Free Asia]

29 December 2020

Cambodia extracts ‘first drop’ of offshore oil

(lm) Cambodian Premier Hun Sen announced on December 29 that the kingdom has extracted its first drops of crude oil from an area off the southwestern coast of Sihanoukville. A long-awaited milestone for one of South-east Asia’s poorest nations, the discovery also raises questions of how the country will use its new-found wealth. [Deutsche Welle] [The Straits Times]

Since American multinational energy corporation Chevron first reported proven reserves off Cambodia in 2005, the kingdom has been feted as the region’s next potential petrostate, with the government estimating hundreds of millions of barrels of crude beneath its waters. But production stalled, as the government and the US giant failed to agree on a tax and revenue-sharing agreement, leading the firm to sell its stake in Block A to Singapore-listed KrisEnergy.

KrisEnergy expects a peak production rate of 7,500 barrels of fluid per day during an initial phase – a modest amount compared with Cambodia’s oil-producing neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. But the revenues could be significant for the government, helping diversify an economy heavily reliant on garment exports – and increasingly Chinese investment [see e.g., AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4]. According to an agreement reached in 2017, the government, which holds a 5 percent stake of the block, would earn at least $500 million from the first phase of the project, based on an oil price of $50 per barrel. [Asia Times]

22 December 2020

ASEAN and the South China Sea in 2021

(nd) Against the background of ongoing tensions and significant developments in and regarding the South China Sea over 2020, a recent article in the [East Asia Forum] by Sourabh Gupta argues for an increased potential for ASEAN to play a more meaningful role in the conflict.

22 December 2020

Cambodia, China relations possibly shifting

(nd) The Cambodian government has just ordered its first batch of Covid-19 vaccine and it is not coming from China but the UN-backed COVAX vaccine facility which can be read as a move away from China in the vaccination game. Meanwhile, China’s Sinovac vaccines were already delivered to Indonesia which, different from Cambodia, is not particularly close to China at all. Adding to the significance of Phnom Penh’s decision to not deal with China this time are remarks of Prime Minister Hun Sen, saying Cambodia was not a Chinese “dustbin” for vaccine trials.

A readable [Asia Times] piece contemplates on the possible background story and the question if a more neutralist Cambodian foreign policy looms which, however, might still seems too early to early to judge. In any case, there have already been dialectical counter-movements to the increasing Chinese influence in the country which culminated in last October’s first bilateral trade pact between Cambodia and China. Negotiated in a remarkably short span of less than a year, it leans heavily in favor of China, which has enjoyed a large trade surplus and is accompanied by increasing discontent with Chinese investments. Critics claim that Chinese firms would only hire Chinese workers, engage in land grabs, and bring Chinese organized crime to Cambodia with Sihanoukville being the most prominent example.

See also the last week’s Asia in Review for the Cambodian governments attempt to regain at least some control over the city which many saw already as turning into a Chinese “colony”. [AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3]

All irritations notwithstanding, will a revitalized Cambodian tourism industry after its pandemic freeze heavily rely on Chinese tourists while China became the country’s largest trading partner in 2019, with bilateral trade worth US$8.53 billion back then. [Asia Times]

15 December 2020

ASEAN, US relations: challenges and prospects

(nd) A recent report analyzes the challenges for the incoming Biden administration to enhance US ties with Southeast Asian nations. The report sees a great deal of skepticism in the region with regards to the US commitment and wariness of China’s reaction. China has immense strategic interests in the region and advanced to become its major investor through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Such investments, although seen in all their ambiguity by many local observers, are badly needed by the region’s Covid-19-shaken economies. Also, militarily China is increasingly present in the region according to the report and demonstrated its willingness to use force when it comes to its geopolitical interests. The new administration’s call for multilateral engagement is therefore understood by the authors as a call to active participation with ASEAN nations rather than an attempt to develop US leadership as too much engagement is seen as potentially triggering more aggressive counter-moves by China. Given these obstacles, a revival of US-ASEAN ties requires a clear vision and assessment of limitations, patience and political will according the report. [East Asia Forum]

15 December 2020

Myanmar, US to blacklist Chinese investor in “industrial zone”

(nd) The US added Chinese 14K triad leader Wan Kuok Koi aka “Broken Tooth”, to its sanctioned list of “corrupt actors”. 

Wan, who was arrested in 1999 over his involvement in 14 murders in Macau, is a leading representative of the 14K Triad group which globally engages in organized crime with its estimated 20,000 members including drug trafficking, illegal gambling, racketeering, human trafficking and murder, in particular also in Southeast Asia. The US also added three entities owned or controlled by Wan in Cambodia, Hong Kong and Palau to the list. After Wan and similar Chinese business-crime networks were very active in Cambodia in recent years, they are now expanding in particular in Myanmar after Cambodia’s Sihanoukville became less “investment friendly” to them.

Three years ago, Chinese and Cambodian police began cracking down on Chinese firms behind internet wagering, illegal casinos, gang violence and money laundering in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville. There, the Chinese investment and in particular illegal gambling fueled a massive property bubble and pushed local population and business in a gradual Sinification out of the city. Moreover, the money laundering enterprises blossoming there, contributed to Cambodia’s increasing difficulties to get access to international finance. Growing lawlessness finally led the Cambodian government ask for Beijing’s help to rectify the situation leading to a crackdown which then prompted the affected Chinese networks to look for alternatives. Concerted efforts under the label “Saixigang Industrial Zone”, which translates roughly as “Surpass Sihanoukville”, led to huge investment projects in Myanmar’s border region to Thailand with Wan launching a part project in March this year in Kuala Lumpur in a splendid ceremony. Now, Chinese firms are building huge enclaves in Karen State along the banks of the Moei River that separates southeastern Myanmar from Thailand. There, three new cities are emerging on the lands of Burma’s ethnic Karen which were devastated by heavy combat between Myanmar’s army and Karen nationalists not long ago. After reportedly partnering up with the local rebel groups, the Chinese investors created hotels, casinos and condos in unauthorized “special economic zones”, while leaders as Wan branded the project as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative and even advertised the building of smart cities.  

According to the US Treasury Department Wan’s World Hongmen History and Culture Association – established in 2018 in Cambodia and linked to the global Hongmen fraternal organization and secret society established in the mid-1600s – is running a powerful business network active in the development and launching of cryptocurrencies, real estate and operating a security company specializing in protecting BRI investments.

The recent US blacklisting is highlighting the ever-developing nexus of shady investments, organized crime, political violence and geopolitics as it has been flourishing in mainland Southeast Asia since the end of World War II, when strongmen like Thailand’s police chief Phao cooperated with the CIA to operate in neighboring countries with anti-communist rebel groups who financed themselves by their involvement in the global opium trade. 

Now, the danger greatly comes from Chinese triads with excellent cross-border links spanning the region, whose activities are intertwined with the failures of domestic politics and geopolitical dynamics. [Irrawaddy] [USIP]

15 December 2020

Cambodia: EU to announce global human rights sanction regime

(nd) The EU announced the adoption of a global human rights sanction regime, including travel bans and the freezing of assets of individuals or entities held responsible for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights abuses. It also blocks access to EU funds. [Carnegie]

Due to its current human rights situation, observers believe that Cambodia is likely to be the target of this sanction regime, which could further damage its ties to the West. Human rights campaigners therefore urged Cambodia to effectively resolve human rights and democracy issues. [Radio Free Asia]

The EU has already suspended trade preferences for Cambodia with the halt of its “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme in August [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3] [No. 41, October/2020, 2]. 

Last month, US lawmakers urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to impose sanctions under the Magnitsky Act against senior leaders of the CPP responsible for repression of the CNRP. [Asia Times]

8 December 2020

Cambodia: Sister of disappeared Thai dissident to present evidence to court

(nd) The sister of an exiled Thai dissident, reportedly abducted in Cambodia in June, offered evidence to a Cambodian judge in order to open an official investigation into her brother’s disappearance. Cambodia has denied an abduction took place and said no investigation was planned. The decision to not open investigations was criticized by Amnesty International in a statement on Tuesday. According to Human Rights Watch, a 2018 issued arrest warrant alleged the dissident in Thailand of violating the Computer Crime Act by operating a Facebook page critical of the Thai government from Cambodian soil where he had taken refuge earlier residing in Cambodia since 2014, the year of the military coup in Thailand.

From 2016 to 2018, several Thai exiles were abducted or vanished in neighboring countries, with the tortured bodies of murdered exiles in Laos found floating in the Mekong river. The victims were associated with Thailand’s Red Shirt political movement, who continued to protest from exile. [The Diplomat] [Prachatai]

8 December 2020

Cambodia: Senior opposition members announce return

(nd) Following the commencement of a mass trial against opposition figures last week [AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], senior members of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) announced their return from self-exile to face criminal charges. The trial prompted the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia to express serious concerns about the politically motivated proceedings for lacking legal grounds and recognition of due process rights.

Most of the oppositional politicians fled after the dissolution of the CNRP in November 2017, which was followed by a more broader crackdown on civil society, land rights activists, and the independent press, enabling Prime Minister Hun Sen to win all seats in the National Assembly in the 2018 elections.

The returning group of exiles will not include acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy though, who is in exile since 2016 and has tried to return to Cambodia in November 2019 but was denied air-travel after the Cambodian government declared to refuse the plane permission to land if he would be on board.

The now announced attempt to return is along-sided by similar governmental threats and will also be difficult to manage due to travel restrictions with regards to Covid-19, prompting the impression, that the respective CNRP leaders’ primary aim is to bring international attention to the repressive political situation, possibly resulting in more Western pressure for change. [The Diplomat] [Radio Free Asia]

1 December 2020

Cambodia, EU to discuss bilateral cooperation

(nd) In a three-day meeting between Cambodia and the European Commission (EC), the EC again raised concerns over arrested opposition activists, unfair trials and the EU’s partial withdrawal of the “Everything But Arms” trade scheme.

According to analysts, the EU’S pressure has not resulted in a change of action with regards to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his officials, whose measures seemed to have become systematic, with a slight chance of a postponement of the recent mass trial [See in this issue] [Phnom Penh Post]

1 December 2020

Cambodia: Court drops case against journalists

(nd) A Cambodian court dropped incitement charges two former reporters for shuttered Cambodia Daily newspaper. In 2017, the reporters interviewed voters in favor of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which prompted accusations of inciting voters to support CNRP in the upcoming elections. Human rights groups welcomed the decision and called on courts to drop other outstanding charges against journalists. [Radio Free Asia]

1 December 2020

Cambodia: Mass trial against opposition politicians

(nd) On Tuesday, 121 defendants with ties to the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were summoned to appear at court, with most having fled to exile fearing they would not get a fair trial. With only 50 defendants to actually appear, activists labeled this as move by premier Hun Sen to crush his rivals.

CNRP was dissolved and the leader Kem Sokha arrested on charges of treason for allegedly conspiring with the US to overthrow Hun Sen in 2018. Hun Sen won every parliamentary seat in the subsequent election. In contrast to Sokha’s trial, which was delayed with reference to the corona virus, the mass trials were proceeded rapidly. Sokha’s trial might not take place until 2024, after the next general election. Other defendants have rallied for the return of Sam Rainsy from exile, Hun Sen’s biggest rival.

The speed could be explained with the approaching change in the US presidency, with a group of lawmakers earlier this month urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to sanction the country by removing trade privileges under the General System of Preferences (GSP) scheme, which is unlikely to happen in the remaining months of the Trump administration. The seemingly politically-motivated mass trials have also prompted the United Nation’s expert on Human Rights to urge Cambodia to ensure a fair trial and protect civil liberties. With a broad crackdown on opposition, civil and democratic space grew thinner, as well as ties with the US and European Union, who revokes special trade privileges earlier. As a result, Cambodia worked together closer with China. The ruling party has been in power since 1979. [Channel News Asia] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Times]


24 November 2020

Cambodia: Theme park close to Angkor Wat to be built

(nd) NagaCorp, Hong Kong-listed operator of NagaWorld casinos in the capital, announced to built a 75-hectare theme park project outside of Siem Reap, nearby the iconic Angkor Wat temple. It will be built by a Chinese state-owned enterprise not known yet. The government granted a 50-year lease on the land. While developers emphasize the expected increase in tourism, locals and rights groups remain skeptical of the benefits and asked for more transparency. Many worry about the preservation of the identity of the  UNESCO World Heritage site, which displays artifacts from the 12th century, in light of the entertainment nature of the project and a planned “China Town” inside the theme park.

Concerns about gambling facilities being built are rooted in the years-long Chinese investment into Sihanoukville, which became a magnet for Chinese casinos, much to the disdain of local residents. After most Western countries stopped investing in Cambodia over its human rights situation, China gained big influence as investor. [Radio Free Asia]


24 November 2020

Cambodia: Gambling law promulgated while casino operator plans to build theme park close to Angkor Wat

(nd) A newly promulgated Law on the Management of Integrated Resorts and Commercial Gambling (LMCG) regulates commercial gaming activities with respect to individuals and entities. Cambodia’s gambling sector attracts many tourist, mostly Chinese, and creates significant jobs and tax revenue. For the sake to fight money laundering, bribery, corruption and the financing of terrorism, the new law enables authorities to inspect material and record voices from cameras installed at casinos and other commercial gaming centers. Cambodian citizens are still not allowed to visit casinos. [Phnompenh Post]

Meanwhile, NagaCorp, Hong Kong-listed operator of NagaWorld casinos in the Cambodian capital, is about to erect a 75-hectare theme park project outside of Siem Reap, nearby the iconic Angkor Wat temple by a Chinese state-owned enterprise not known yet. The government granted a 50-year lease on the land. While developers emphasize the expected increase in tourism, locals and rights groups remain skeptical of the benefits and asked for more transparency. Many worry about the preservation of the identity of the UNESCO World Heritage site, which displays artifacts from the 12th century, in light of the entertainment nature of the project and a planned “China Town” inside the theme park.

Concerns about gambling facilities being built are rooted in the years-long Chinese investment into Sihanoukville, which became a magnet for Chinese casinos, much to the disdain of local residents. After most Western countries stopped investing in Cambodia over its human rights situation, China gained big influence as investor. [Radio Free Asia]


24 November 2020

Thailand: Cambodian monks to go into exile

(nd) Two Buddhist monks fled from Cambodia to Thailand, avoiding their arrest. The activists were targeted by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for joining protests demanding the release of trade union leader Rong Chhun. They resisted exerted pressure by pro-government cleric officials to join the CPP. Many activists and civil society groups have condemned Chhun’s arrest in July 2020, who was charged with sedition for commenting on the demarcation of the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, stripping local farmers of their land. [Asia News]


17 November 2020

Cambodia: Rong Chhun to appeal his detention

(nd) Labor leader and member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC) Rong Chhun, who was arrested in July, appealed his detention. He argued it was unlawful for there was no risk of flight and he promised full cooperation. Chhun was charged with incitement after publicly claiming that Cambodia’s government had ceded land to neighboring Vietnam. Police arrested him at his house at night-time and charged him with causing social chaos under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code. [Phnompenh Post] [See also AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5] [AiR No. 37 September/2020, 3]

17 November 2020

Cambodia: Petition to King denied, ongoing crackdown

(nd) On Friday, a group of wives of jailed Cambodian activists were refused to hand over a petition to the kind by security guards. For several weeks every Friday, wives of jailed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members have protested publicly for their husbands’ release. Some reported they were followed afterwards, at least one was told to defect to the ruling Cambodian’s People Party (CCP) in exchange for her husband’s freedom. Since early 2020, about 20 CNRP activists and officials have been the victim of targeted assaults, mainly carried out by motorbike-riders targeting their heads.

After the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017. This was followed by a broad crackdown on NGOs and independent media, which helped Hun Sen’s CPP to win the general election in 2018. [Radio Free Asia]

In a legal action last Friday, 50 opposition activists have been summoned by the court on charges of treason for protesting against the government nonviolently over the past three years. They are facing a possible jail time of 12 years. [Yahoo News] President Hun Sen’s broad crackdown on the opposition started in 2017, targeting individuals and media outlets.

17 November 2020

Cambodia: Per person debt highest globally

(nd) Due to a limited access to traditional banking, over 2.6 million Cambodians borrowed money from microfinance providers. With an average annual income of US$1,700, Cambodian borrowers owe an average of US$3,800 each – the highest per capita amount in the world –, mounting to a total debt of US$10 billion to microfinance lenders. The providers often target rural villages where residents have limited financial insight, with interest rates soaring up to 30 % in the light of a lack of enforcement against illegal lending. Lenders are holding land titles as collateral.

According to rights groups, up to 2 million working-age Cambodians migrated to Thailand to repay the debt. Many of them lost their jobs due to the pandemic, toughening the situation for the villagers. Many houses have been abandoned in flight of debt collectors. [South China Morning Post]

17 November 2020

South-East Asian leaders to discuss travel corridor

(nd) During the ASEAN summit, Southeast Asian leaders discussed a regional “travel corridor” in order to boost the region’s Covid-sticken economies, with the first quarter of 2021 as possible start date. The Corridor would include generalized regional health protocols to facilitate the exchange of people between the countries.

This move follows several bilateral steps taken earlier to enable traveling, with Singapore establishing “green lane” arrangements, setting up a reciprocal green lane with Indonesia for essential business and official travel [see also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], also with Hong Kong, Brunei, Malaysia, China, and Japan. A corridor would help enhance the economic outlook for the Southeast Asian nations, which were hit heavily by the pandemic, with regional integration and mobility having been key to Southeast Asia’s rapid growth over the past three decades, although analysts warned the timeline might be too optimistic. [The Diplomat

17 November 2020

Cambodian King to sign royal decree on legal assistance

(nd) Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni signed a royal decree concerning mutual legal assistance between Cambodia, South Korea, Russia and France. According to a Ministry of Justice spokesman, the agreement is similar to those with other allied countries, and includes regulations on the transferring of prisoners, cooperation in criminal matters and extradition. [Phnompenh Post]

17 November 2020

Cambodia: Ongoing debates on Ream Naval Base

(nd) At the ASEAN summit, Cambodia’s Minister of Economy and Finance reinforced the country’s stance on not allowing foreign military presence within its borders, referring to the nation’s sovereignty and neutrality. For that reason, the Ream Naval Base Shall be relocated, with foreign parties invited to contribute to funding the center.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, meanwhile, said the US remains concerned about the issue, with a foreign naval base undermining maritime safety and security, and freedom of navigation. [Phnompenh Post]

17 November 2020

ASEAN signs RCEP, biggest trade agreement globally

(nd) The 37th ASEAN Summit concluded past Sunday with some 30 declarations, statements, plan-of-actions and summaries, covering a wide range of issues including stalled connectivity initiatives, environmental concerns, regional trade and integration, multilateral security frameworks, among others.

A dominant issue at the Summit was a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic where cooperation initiatives were announced and put into operation, including the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies, the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedures in response to Public Health Emergencies and the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. [Vietnam Investment Review] [Malay Mail]

Opening the Summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addressed the South China Sea issue, commenting ASEAN member states were not “drawn into the maelstroms” of the US-Chinese rivalry yet, but challenges to multilateral systems remain urgent.

At the sidelines of the Summit, the ASEAN member states along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), resulting in the world’s biggest trade agreement [See also AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4], covering around 30% of the global GDP. India pulled out last year. The agreement will rather focus on trade and the practicalities of commerce, foreseeably to the detriment of labor and environmental issues.

Following a retreat from the region and uncertainties caused by an erratic foreign policy, the US engagement was put into question for a long time, enabling China to enhance its position. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to continue Barack Obama’s stance on Asia and make it a pivotal region of the US foreign policy. [South China Morning Post 1] [Radio Free Asia]

The trade deal puts China in a comfortable position in the region, with the possibility to shape it according to its rules, solidifying China’s geopolitical agenda together with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).The Trump administration was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien who stressed the importance ASEAN-US ties in times of the global pandemic. [South China Morning Post 2] [9News]

Malaysia’s prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said he respects India’s decision but noted India was a strategic partner for ASEAN, and their trade volume increased, with India being the sixth largest trading partner. In order to facilitate trade, the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) was proposed, which is being reviewed currently. [Bernama]

17 November 2020

East Asia Summit: Deepening cooperation in pandemic response

(dql) Leaders of participating countries at the East Asia Summit on past Saturday stressed the need for countries across the Asia-Pacific to cooperate in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the current economic crisis.

The Summit brought together Asean’s 10 members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. [Straits Times]

10 November 2020

Cambodia: Wife of detained dissident injured in staged traffic accident

(jn) The wife of jailed Phnom Penh opposition politician Khem Pheana of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was injured in a staged traffic accident by unidentified assailants that she suspects was meant to discourage her from advocating her husband’s release. On Tuesday, three men drove a motorbike into her vehicle on a street in the capital. The perpetrators fled the scene, leaving her with a seriously injured foot. This is the latest incident of at least 20 people affiliated with the CNRP who have been assailed in attacks or beatings [AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4]. [Radio Free Asia]

10 November 2020

Cambodia: Court summons exiled opposition party members in effort to deter

(jn) A Phnom Penh court last Tuesday issued summons to 59 exiled Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Members for treason and incitement charges, a move criticized by opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and observers as politically motivated to prevent the accused from returning to Cambodia. The summons address among others 13 senior officials, including interim-party leader Sam Rainsy and his wife, all of whom fled overseas in fear of persecution in the aftermath of the CNRP’s banning in 2017.

In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved CNRP after its leader Kem Sokha was arrested for his alleged coup plan to topple Hun Sen. Other CNRP members decried Hun Sen for using the court to threaten or silence his opponents. Observers viewed the move as another strategy to prevent CNRP leaders from returning to Cambodia. [Radio Free Asia]

10 November 2020

ASEAN and China discuss humane mutual treatment of fishermen

(jn) ASEAN members and China discussed ways to promote cooperation in humane treatment of fishermen as part of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC of 2002 obligates the parties intensify efforts to build trust and confidence and ensure just and humane treatment of all persons who are either in danger or distress at sea. [Hanoi Times]

10 November 2020

Cambodia: US naval base demolished

(nd) Following a similar action last month [AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1], another US-built facility at a naval base was demolished according to recent satellite imagery by US researchers. The images circulated by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) showed a Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat maintenance facility at Ream Naval Base, which was standing on October 1, but not anymore on November 4.

Cambodia commented last month, it demolished facilities in order to enable further expansion, at the same time denying reports of Chinese involvement. Claims by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the three-year old facility was taken down for renovation, were deemed unconvincing. Cambodia is a close ally of China and has received political support amid Western criticism as well as billions of dollars of aid. [South China Morning Post]

10 November 2020

Laos: Transmission lines to Cambodia officially launched

(py) Transmission lines to export electricity to Cambodia, as agreed upon between Electricite Du Laos (EDL) and the Electricite Du Cambodge (EDC), were successfully completed. The 18-kilometer transmission line construction project was an investment by EDL and constructed by Chinese-owned companies YEIG and CGGC. [The Laotian Times] Laos is a major transnational energy provider in the region. Power exports take up around two-thirds of the whole hydropower generation and account for 15% of the country’s export earnings. [Asian Development Bank]

3 November 2020

Former senior Singaporean diplomat triggers controversy over ASEAN membership

(jn) Former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan, triggered an international controversy on Octoer 23, suggesting ASEAN might have to terminate the membership of Cambodia and Laos given the enormous political and economic influence of an outside power, arguably alluding to China. He uttered the idea at a webinar of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, after referencing a proposed communiqué between ASEAN and China from 2012, which failed due to Cambodia’s resistance. Mr. Kausikan also said that both countries “must care” about who controls the Mekong River which he called an existential issue for people’s livelihoods.

The comments were rebuked by current and former Cambodian diplomats who attacked Mr. Kausikan as “arrogant and condescending”, said he destroyed ASEAN unity and questioned whether he was an “agent”. [South China Morning Post]

3 November 2020

Cambodia: Prime Minister Hun Sen reaffirms denial of plans for Chinese military base

(jn) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denied again on Tuesday that his government was allowing China to establish a military presence in the country. Hun Sen stated there will be Chinese investors and technical experts in Cambodia, but no Chinese armed personnel, and called for the production of evidence on the presence of Chinese troops. His remarks come in the wake of the demolition of US funded facilities at Ream Naval Base in September, that was revealed last month [AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. The incident sparked worries among the US and international observers that the base might be prepared for a future Chinese military presence. Similar concerns were contributed to the US slapping sanctions on a Chinese-controlled company for developing the Dara Sakor project further north at the coastline. [AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4] [The Star]


3 November 2020

Cambodia: Hun Sen threatens family of exiled opposition leader

(jn) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday uttered threats against the family of exiled opposition leader Ho Vann of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), reminding him in public that his wife and children still lived in the country and could face charges for being “associates in treason.” The remarks appeared to be made in retaliation for Mr. Ho Vann’s call to protest China’s growing influence in the country in a demonstration during which protesters were arrested and assaulted by security forces [AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4]. Mr. Ho Vann, now a US resident, confirmed his call to protest but denied any particular influence on the demonstration. [Radio Free Asia]Human Rights Watch strongly criticized the threats and called on foreign governments and the United Nations to condemn them. [Radio Free Asia 2]

3 November 2020

Cambodia: Appeal to stop investigation into two reporters denied by Supreme Court

(jn) On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Cambodia denied a request by two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists that an investigation into espionage charges against them be dropped. The reporters were arrested in November of 2017 and were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source”. Now, with the investigations and their trial proceeding, they could face prison sentences of between seven and 15 years. [Radio Free Asia]

27 October 2020

China to share Mekong river data with downstream countries

(jn) Last Thursday, China signed an agreement with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an intergovernmental organization of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – according to which it will share year-round and current data on water flows of the Mekong. The move was welcomed by other stakeholder nations as helpful in monitoring and forecasting floods and droughts on the important regional waterway. The MRC Secretariat Chief Executive Officer lauded the agreement as a “landmark in the history of China-MRC cooperation”.  The US, previously urged for more transparency on the Mekong’s flow, also praised the data sharing agreement as vital to downstream countries.

The Mekong is severely impacted by 13 dams in China and Laos, and others along its tributaries, that have significantly altered the natural flow of the 3,100-mile river for more than 60 million people depending on the water source.

China’s dam constructions have come under criticism for contributing to recent droughts that have severely damaged agriculture and depleted fish stocks downstream. Eyes on Earth, a US-based research and consulting firm, reported in April 2020 a striking gap between the volume of rainfall on the Chinese part of the Mekong and the water masses arriving further south. [Radio Free Asia[The Diplomat]

27 October 2020

Japan’s Suga pledges security assistance for ASEAN’s coasts

(jn) Japan’s Prime Minister Suga announced in Jakarta on Wednesday that his country will provide patrol boats to Southeast Asian governments, like Indonesia and Vietnam, presenting an effort to help these countries secure their waters around the disputed South China Sea. Mr. Suga stressed the importance of adhering to the rule of law and peaceful conflict settlement in international waterways and lamented recent breaches of maritime law in the region. He explicitly pointed out combating illegal fishing as a reason to supply ASEAN countries with patrol boats. [Radio Free Asia]

The rhetoric and the agreement’s content match the overall strategic play of Mr. Suga during his South East Asian round trip, namely boosting Japan’s economic and security ties to ASEAN members that themselves are facing Chinese encroachment in what they see either as territorial or international waters. [Asia Times]

27 October 2020

Cambodia: Opposition leaders ordered to appear before court

(jn) A Phnom Penh court has issued warrants for the arrest of the interim leader of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy, and other senior party members to be questioned for investigations pursuant to Art. 451 of the penal code. Said provision punishes “acts of violence liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory” with 15 to 30 years of prison.  [Phnom Penh Post]

27 October 2020

Cambodia disperses protest against Chinese military presence

(jn) Cambodian security forces broke up a small demonstration of people protesting a potential future Chinese military presence in the country, arresting three. The criticism was arguably directed against the controversial real estate projects at Ream Naval Base and the Dara Sakor zone which have come under intense international scrutiny [see e.g. AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1] [Reuters]

27 October 2020

Cambodia aspiring to be landmine-free in five years

(jn) With the aid of Western nations, the Cambodian government plans to deploy 2,000 soldiers to train as deminers to clear the country’s grounds of landmines and other unexploded ordnance by 2025. According to a Cambodian government official, the country would still need about $380 million to complete the endeavor. [VOA News]

27 October 2020

Cambodia: Senior opposition politician in hospital after assault

(jn) A high-ranking member of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had to be hospitalized after a violent attacked by two unidentified men on a motorbike in Phnom Penh on October 19. He was hit on the head with a rock, causing severe hemorrhaging. The assault follows a pattern of other incidents since late 2019, in which at least 10 CNRP activists and officials have been injured, mostly by unknown motorbike-riding attackers targeting their heads. [Radio Free Asia]

20 October 2020

Cambodia, China sign free trade deal signaling closer relationship

(jn) Cambodia and China signed the Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) in a ceremony attended by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday last week. It is the first of such bilateral deal for Cambodia at a time when it is inching closer towards China amid the latter’s rivalry with the United States in the region. The not yet publicized deal was signed by the Ministers of Commerce of each country completing a process of just three rounds of negotiations from January to July of this year.

Cambodia also secured $ 140 million in loans and grants from Beijing to fund several of the country’s “top priority projects”, among them infrastructure projects such as connecting Cambodia with Hong Kong via undersea fiber-optic cable as well as power plant and road construction. Details about the content of the deal are still unknown as is how it would fit in the already existing ASEAN-China Free Trade Area.

Cambodia’s Commerce Minister, Pan Sorasak said that the “signing of the agreement signifies even stronger ties between the two countries and marks another key historical milestone for Cambodia-China relations.” He said he hoped that the agreement would enter into force early next year and would strengthen the economic ties to China through a higher degree of market access and trade liberalization.

The Chinese Ministry of Commerce said on its website that the agreement comprised issues such as investment, trade, tourism, transportation and agriculture. A Cambodian official said in July that it covered 340 commodities with 95% of them tariff-free, among them fruit, vegetables, meat, grain, but not Cambodian rice, rubber and sugar.

By concluding the CCFTA, Cambodia also aims to offset losses incurred after the EU suspended its “Everything But Arms” trade privileges in August because of the dire state of human and democratic rights in the country. Officially circulated expectations that the deal would boost trade with China by 20% or more annually have been met with skepticism among experts, especially given that the vital apparel industry seems to have been largely left out of the FTA [see AiR No. 33 August/2020, 3].

China accounted for 37% of imported goods to Cambodia in 2019, or $ 8.3 billion, while Cambodia sent only $ 900 million of goods to China which is about 5% of its total exports. Total trade between the two countries grew about 28% from 2018 to more than $ 9 billion in 2019, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. The Cambodian government said it expects bilateral trade to reach $ 10 billion in 2023.[Reuters] [Nikkei Asian Review] [South China Morning Post] [Radio Free Asia]

13 October 2020

Cambodia: Court sentences journalist to 18 months in prison, but suspends remainder of sentence

(jn) A Phnom Penh court sentenced a Cambodian journalist to 18 months in prison on October 5 for reporting on comments that Prime Minister Hun Sen made about the pandemic, while suspending the term for its remainder. Sovann Rithy, 31, who had run the news outlet TVFB on Facebook and had been in custody since April was convicted for incitement.

Media organizations – while welcoming the suspension – criticized the sentence and pointed to the threat it embodied for journalists and their work. [VOA News]

13 October 2020

Cambodia still on track to meet its financial obligations, PM says

(jn) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said during a Council of Ministers meeting on October 9 that his country was still planning to fulfill its financial obligations in full and on time despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The country was still in a relatively good shape financially compared to other nations, he said.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated in its economic and social assessment of the effects of Covid-19 on the country that the economy may contract by about 4% this year, down from a December estimate of 6.5 % of annual growth. The poverty rate could as nearly double to 17.6% and unemployment could rise to almost 5 %. [Cambodianess]

13 October 2020

Cambodia: Hun Sen defends Chinese naval base use and demolition of US sponsored base

(jn) Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed fears that the expansion of Ream Naval Base might portend a future permanent Chinese military presence at the Cambodian coastline, with geopolitical implications far beyond. He said even though the base would not be turned into an international port, changes there would allow it to be used by different countries. Foreign vessels, not only Chinese ones, would be granted permission and be welcome to dock or conduct military exercises.

On Hun Sen’s behalf the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released the transcript of a speech from June in which the he had pointed out that the erection of a foreign military base on Cambodian soil would be in violation of the Cambodian Constitution. [Radio Free Asia]

Hun Sen explicitly referred to criticism voiced by the United States over the demolition of a US-funded building at Ream Naval Base that the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) had proved with satellite imagery last week [AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. The US embassy expressed disappointment on Wednesday “that Cambodian military authorities have chosen to demolish a maritime security facility that is only seven years old and was a sign of US-Cambodia relations.” The US would remain concerned given that a possible Chinese military outpost at Ream Naval Base “would negatively impact the US-Cambodia bilateral relationship and be disruptive and destabilizing to the Indo-Pacific region.” [Cambodianess]

The Cambodian National Committee for Maritime Security (NCMS) had said on Monday (Oct. 5) that its Tactical Command Headquarters which the now-demolished building had accommodated were only a temporary structure. It had been scheduled to be relocated since late 2017 because it was too small and lacked docking facilities, with limited capacity for training and other activities. Thus, a larger facility would be established at a new location, but it would have the same function and not involve foreign partners. [AP]

While opening a $85 million amusement park in Kandal province where he also made above-mentioned comments on Ream Naval Base, Hun Sen also challenged his detractors to name any other country that could match China’s clout in development aid. Referring to other “superpower nations” critical of Cambodia’s perceived coziness with China he rhetorically asked, “if China doesn’t build roads and bridges, who will instead?” Should anyone come up with an answer, he would step down from his office.

Until recently, Cambodia’s largest donors of development aid were Japan, the United States and the Asian Development Bank. According to data from the Ministry of Economy and Finance, in the first half of the year Cambodia borrowed almost $ 5 billion from China and almost $ 1.7 billion from Japan. [Cambojanews] 

13 October 2020

Cambodia, China to sign free trade deal

(jn) Cambodia and China were set to sign the long-awaited Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang’s two-day visit signaling deepening relations between the countries. In the first stop of his four-nation tour to Southeast Asia on Sunday and Monday, Wang was expected to meet Prime Minister Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong, and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn.

China accounts for the largest share of foreign direct investment in Cambodia and is its top trading partner, while also holding almost half of the country’s foreign debt. This development could drag Cambodia into the Chinese-US rivalry in the region, as evidenced by sanctions that Washington slapped on the Union Development Group (UDG) last month, a Chinese state-owned investment, for a development project in Cambodia’s Koh Kong Province [see AiR No. 38, September/2020,4].  Also in September, Cambodia razed a US-funded facility at Ream Naval Base, for the expansion of which it reportedly accepted Chinese [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1].

Cambodia hopes that the CCFTA will offset the loss of the privileged access to the European Union’s common market after EU suspended its “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme in August [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]. [South China Morning Post] [Global Times] [Phnom Penh Post] [Khmer Times] [The Diplomat]

13 October 2020

Cambodia: Draft cybercrime law sparks concerns over threat to free speech and privacy

(jn) A draft of a new cybercrime law has caused concerns among rights groups over provisions that could help Cambodian authorities intensify its crackdown on freedom of expression, while also raising privacy and data collection concerns.

The bill’s first formulation had already been announced in 2010 and was officially envisaged to regulate Cambodia’s cyberspace and related crimes by giving law enforcement access to investigate these infractions. An August draft of the law has now become public and reveals it could be used to further curtail freedom of expression relying on broad terms. [VOA Cambodia]

13 October 2020

Cambodia: PM’s son once again presents Chinese military vehicles to army

(jn) Hun Manet, the son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and commander of the army’s infantry, presented 75 vehicles donated by the People’s Republic of China to 32 units of the RCAF on Tuesday last week. According to a defense ministry spokesperson, the vehicles are grants from the People’s Republic of China within the framework of cooperation between the two countries’ Ministries of Defence.

Hun Manet had already conducted a similar ceremony in June of this year during which he had unveiled a shipment of 290 Chinese-made military trucks but had claimed that those were from “unnamed donors” [AiR No.25, June/2020, 4]. [Phnom Penh Post]

13 October 2020

Cambodia: New legislation on fast-growing gambling sector 

(jn) Cambodia’s parliament passed the long-awaited Law on Commercial Gambling Management that will impose new rules on the country’s hitherto unchecked gambling businesses and give the government greater control over the industry. Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth said in parliament that the bill was aimed at “further strengthening the management of commercial gaming facilities in Cambodia so as to contribute to boosting economic growth, promoting tourism, increasing tax revenue as well as maintaining social safety and security.”

The bill provides for clearly designated gambling zones and prescribes minimum investment requirements and contains additional measures to protect the industry against money laundering and terrorism financing. [The Diplomat]

6 October 2020

Cambodian government lashes out over UN report

(jn) The Cambodian government on September 30 attacked the UN over accusations of human rights abuses. The same day the UN Secretary-General’s office had presented a report to the Human Rights Council finding that the Cambodian police had routinely interfered with civil society organizations and intimidated those who have collaborated with the UN.

A government spokesperson claimed that UN bodies and representatives were twisting the truth, adding that the police always follow Cambodian law. He said he felt that Cambodia has been facing baseless accusations for many years despite always handing in explanatory reports about incidents of intimidation, harassment and violence. [Cambodianess]

6 October 2020

RFA: Top Cambodian General’s family embroiled in fraudulent land bank scheme in Australia

(jn) An investigation by Radio Free Asia has unearthed an illegal investment scheme that involves an Australian Khmer businessman and the daughters of a high-ranking Cambodian general who served as front women for real estate purchases far below market value, until it was shut down by an Australian court. The daughters of Gen. Pol Saroeun, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s senior government officials and until 2018 commander-in-chief of the armed forces, participated in a so-called land bank scheme, i.e. buying shares for large areas of land under market value with the purpose of dividing up into smaller parcels for future, profitable residential developments. In 2011, they bought five million shares of the company Aviation 3030 Pty Ltd founded by businessman Hakly Lao for just US$36 even though the market equivalent of the shares was indeed US$715.000. Lao had purchased the 240-acre patch of land in the Melbourne suburb of Point Cook for US$5.6 million some months prior. 

A federal judge had the whole scheme shut down last year saying the two daughters were “nominees” for Lao by lending him their names to obscure Lao’s beneficial ownership of the shares from future investors. The judge also gave other examples of criminal conduct like document fraud, deceiving investors and unauthorized expenditures.

Another land bank scheme devised by Lao and of even bigger dimensions was also prosecuted by Australian authorities in 2018. 

In recent years, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is said to have been actively involved in other criminal enterprises in Australia such as money laundering, intimidation and smuggling of heroin, cigarettes and alcohol. [Radio Free Asia]

6 October 2020

Cambodian king reaffirms One-China-Policy 

(jn) King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia sent a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping extending his congratulations on the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. He expressed solidarity with China on their controversial One-China policy, saying Cambodia will stand side-by-side with China and adhere to policy. [Cambodianess]

6 October 2020

Cambodia destroyed US-funded facility at Ream Naval Base, possibly in the context of Chinese access 

(jn) Satellite images analyzed and made available by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have revealed that the Cambodian government destroyed a US-funded military facility at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk Province, further stoking the fear that changes at said base are related to a secret deal on military access between Cambodia and China. According to AMTI, the building probably demolished at the beginning of September was the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security that had been built and renovated by the US, and inaugurated in 2012. 

AMTI also noted that satellite images show the progress of land reclamation and about 100 acres of new landfill since February, about three miles north of the base at a stretch of Ream Bay. The zone is being developed by Canopy Sands Development Group which is owned by the Chinese conglomerate Prince Group. Canopy Sands is one of several Chinese companies, some of them with ties to Beijing, that have leased large tracts of land around Ream Naval Base for resort development. [AMTI CSIS]

Reports of a Chinese access to Ream Naval Base had caused anxiety among ASEAN neighbors and the US after reports of a deal between China and Cambodia emerged last year that would allow a Chinese company to construct new piers in exchange for a 30-year-long presence of the Chinese navy (PLAN). A Chinese foothold at the Cambodian coast would have the potential to unsettle the already skewed security equilibrium in the region by giving China another opportunity to permanently project military power to the South China Sea and to the straits of Malacca. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2] [WSJ]

The Cambodian Defense Minister General Tea Banh said on Saturday that the demolition was not out of the ordinary but rather part of a development plan for the base that required moving existing structures to a new location. The goal allegedly was to improve and enlarge the base that was still small and shallow at the moment. He also played down the significance of the US investment as merely amounting “small repair” and “some equipment”, but nevertheless on sovereign Cambodian soil. He called out the US for “making issues” and “always making allegations”. [Radio Free Asia]

Only two weeks ago in a meeting with US ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy, Tea Banh had explicitly assured that Ream Naval Base would be for the Cambodian Navy’s use only. [AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5] However, a ministry spokesman said that the removal was necessary to make way for an expansion of the naval base because “a lot of ships will need to dock”. [Reuters]

Asia Nikkei Review reported on Saturday that according to Vann Bunlieng, a three-star vice-admiral, deputy commander and chief of the navy general staff, the Chinese government was supporting the expansion of the port and the development a ship repair facility at the base on the Gulf of Thailand. The waters surrounding Ream Naval Base would be deepened so that it can receive larger ships in the future. He said that the “Chinese government helps us to build a port and repair facility for our ship.” 

Even though the Cambodian government and Prime Minister Hun have repeatedly denied any future foreign and military use of the base, the Chinese state-owned company MGC had revealed in 2016 that it was tasked with a “Port Expansion Project” by Cambodian authorities in a “cooperation framework agreement”. In a statement that was since taken down, it had given away on its website that the project aimed at expanding a “naval military base”. [Asia Nikkei Review]

6 October 2020

Southeast Asian nation’s critical potential

(nd) With the economic and political repercussions of Covid-19, Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis that mirrors developments around the “Arab Spring” and the economic situation that lead to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, mobilizing both public and political opposition to demand fundamental political reform to change institutions of governance.

In the World Bank’s latest economic outlook, ASEAN nations’ economy could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. According to an estimate of the International Labor Organization, nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific is within the informal economy, which is not reached by governmental support and not included in official numbers. The many regional protest movements illuminate the frustration of younger populations with ineffective governance and high levels of unemployment.

Already, a political legitimacy deficit can be seen, which turns into trying to mute or quash dissidents and critics through authoritarian leadership, as seen prominently in Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, facing criticism by UN representatives and human rights advocates. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finds himself increasingly pleasing powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent. Ever since February, Malaysia has been struggling with political stability, yet again following an unresolved claim of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government. In Thailand, the unprecedented student-led protests and their criticism of the monarchy institution is gaining ever more momentum. Additionally, Thai protesters expressed solidarity for Taiwan and Hong Kong, fueling a vision of “pan-Asian alliance for democracy”, named “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.

A recent study by British-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft – the Right to Privacy Index (RPI), rated 198 countries for privacy violations, including mass surveillance operations, retention of personal data, home searches and other breaches. According to this, Asia was the world’s highest-risk region for violations with a deterioration in recent years. Among the worst-scoring Asian nations were Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India and the Philippines. The study advocated data privacy legislation and a transparent surveillance system.

The backdrop for these developments is a raging pandemic with sometimes haphazard public health responses additionally undermining credibility and trust. [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]

6 October 2020

Cambodia: Head of United Democratic Party arrested

(lf) The Chairman (U Kyaw Myint) of the United Democratic Party (UDP), also called Rose Party, has been arrested after last week media reports about his background made headlines. [See also AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5] The chairman was arrested for being a fugitive from a 10-year sentence.

The UDP is sending 1,130 candidates into the election, making it the second biggest group of candidates following the currently ruling National League for Democracy party. It is unclear how U Kyaw Myint was able to register the UDP in 2010 and for officials to miss his background as a fugitive. [Irrawaddy]

6 October 2020

Cambodia: Almost 70 new court cases on the docket against dissidents

(jn) Cambodian courts are currently processing cases against nearly 70 former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members for plotting and have already convicted 12 this year for their alleged links to the attempted return of acting party leader Sam Rainsy in November 2019. [Cambojanews] 

6 October 2020

Opposition leader Kem Sokha makes moves for potential political comeback

(jn) After exiled politician Sam Rainsy of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) publicly announced his intentions to return to Cambodia from exile in France last week [AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5], party leader Kem Sokha was now also seen traveling into the country side to hand out humanitarian assistance and partaking in religious ceremonies despite being under house arrest. That move was noticed by figures close to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen who suspect Rainsy of plotting a political comeback and testing his level of support. The Cambodia National Rescue Party was banned in 2017 for allegedly planning a coup and its members were persecuted in a still ongoing government crackdown. [The Diplomat] [Khmer Times]

29 September 2020

ASEAN states commit to more military cooperation 

(jn) The 17th ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting (ACDFM-17) was held virtually on September 24th with participants pledging to boost military cooperation, to build trust and enhance solidarity among the member states’ armed forces.

At the meeting themed “Military Cooperation for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” the participants agreed that the joint efforts will help the organization to keep peace and stability in the region, and that the region is facing traditional and non-traditional challenges namely cyber security, terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and diseases. [Hanoi Times]

29 September 2020

US ambassador, Cambodian Defense Minister meet in the wake of sanctions fallout, but Hun Sen lashes out at West, international community 

(jn) US ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy and Cambodian Minister of National Defense Tea Banh met last week after the US slapped new sanctions on the Chinese state-owned company UDG. UDG is building the Dara Sakor investment zone project in Cambodia’ Koh Kong province which is part of the BRI and suspected of serving as a front for a future Chinese military installation [See also AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4].

Touching on a similar bone of contention, the Cambodian Defense Minister sought to reassure that the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk Province, will be used exclusively by the Cambodian navy and no other country’s navy, namely the Chinese. It would, however, welcome vessels from any other navy. Anyway, he continued, waters at Ream Naval Base were small and shallow and could only accommodate one large ship or several small ships, thus the base were suited only for the Cambodian navy. [Cambodian Ministry of National Defense Press Release] []

Like the Dara Sakor development, the Ream Naval Base has also come under heavy scrutiny by ASEAN neighbors and the US after reports of a deal between China and Cambodia emerged last year that would have a Chinese company construct new piers in exchange for a 30-year-long presence of the Chinese navy (PLAN) [See also AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. Cambodia has repeatedly denied allegations that the country may plan for a permanent Chinese military presence, which would also be forbidden under Cambodia’s constitution – something the Defense Minister pointed out as well in his exchange with the US ambassador. Given Cambodia’s ever closer relationship with China in political, military and economic matters, however, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s vocal dismissals of such reports as “fake news” have also done little to quell suspicion. [Cambodianess]

A US embassy spokesperson told Radio Free Asia Washington was hopeful that the talks will help find a way to expand military-to-military cooperation. Cambodia’s Defense Ministry had abruptly suspended the annual “Angkor Sentinel” joint exercises with the U.S. military in 2017 and has so far failed to follow up with the same or another format. According to observers, such moves indicate Cambodia was accepting declining relations with Western countries in favor of better ones with rising powers like China. [Radio Free Asia]

As a symptom for the demise of relations with the West and in a contrast to the pleasantries exchanged between the US ambassador and the Defense Minister, Prime Minister Hun Sen lashed out at the West in a statement released on Monday on occasion of the International Day of Peace. He lamented that Western countries had failed to recognize Cambodia’s “great achievements” in the last decades and that his country had fallen victim to “double standards”. Regarding criticism of his government’s human rights record, the Prime Minister rehashed a common theme alleging that “this human rights issue” was a political tool or pretense for interfering with domestic affairs and the sovereignty of countries like Cambodia. [South China Morning Post] [Phnom Penh Post]

PM Hun Sen then capped the week on Saturday with pre-recorded remarks to the virtual 75th session of the UN General Assembly by criticizing the partial suspension of the “Everything But Arms” trade privileges that the European Union had granted Cambodia but withdrew in part in August over persistent human rights abuses and anti-democratic repression in the country [See also AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]. He attacked the EU’s decision as “biased”, “unfair” and revealing of “hypocritical double standards” and blamed the “political ambitions” and “opportunistic agenda” of some countries. Hun Sen also claimed that certain developed countries would punish developing countries for an imperfect nation-building process who, however, had a limited capacity to protect fundamental political and social rights. [VOA] [Cambodianess] [Khmer Times]

29 September 2020

Sam Rainsy announces return to Cambodia 

(jn) Opposition leader and acting president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy has publicly vowed to return from five years of exile in France to push for democratic reforms in Cambodia in what would be the second attempt after being blocked from coming home last November. He told Radio Free Asia on Friday that he wanted to return to Cambodia to tackle the economic crisis and said that only a democratic government with the people’s support could solve Cambodia’s problems. [Radio Free Asia]

29 September 2020

Cambodia: Wave of repression keeps rolling 

(jn) Several activists have been jailed or convicted by Cambodian authorities in a sign of unabated crackdown on political dissent in the kingdom.

Last Thursday, a provincial court sentenced seven activists of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to between five and seven years in prison pursuant to infamous Article 453 of the Penal Code for treason. The sentences were handed down for publicly voicing support for exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s return, four of them in absentia Rainsy went into exile in France in 2015 to avoid being tried for what he labeled politically motivated charges and failed to return last November after Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened arrest for, in his view, a “coup attempt”. [Straits Times] [Channel News Asia] [Radio Free Asia]

In another case, Cambodian authorities charged youth activist Oeur Narith, also of the banned CNRP, for raising funds from abroad in an attempt to topple Hun Sen’s government. He was briefly arrested, but then released on bail on Tuesday. [The Diplomat] [VOD English]

Only earlier this month the rising chorus of criticism on the tightening authoritarian vise in Cambodia was joined by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. Her office recounted 24 arrest of opposition activists since prominent labor leader Rong Chhun had been taken into custody on July 31st, which led to demonstrations being held in his favor. [AiR No. 37 September/2020, 3].

Also last week, government forces disbanded a demonstration of around 1.100 people from several rural provinces in Phnom Penh where they blocked the traffic for a short period of time and tried to enter the compound of the Land Management Ministry. The land protesters called attention to their being marginalized and evicted from their property due to development projects awarded to investment companies. [VOD English]

Meanwhile, it has also become public that the planned public order law against inappropriate attire envisaged to enter into force next year [see AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1] would – in case of its adoption – be much more comprehensive than has been previously known. It would allow authorities to discipline people for making noise or speaking too loudly and ban the sale of alcohol at certain night hours without a special permit. Potentially targeting informal workers and the homeless it would ban “arbitrary and disorderly” sales of goods in public; the setting up of temporary shelters; attracting customers “in a way that affects orderliness and public order”; all forms of begging; and those with a “mental disorder” being unaccompanied without a guardian. One provision bans the “use of face masks or other disguise” in public or private – which runs directly counter to the Health Ministry’s Covid-19 recommendations on wearing masks.

The draft legislation has sparked an outcry among rights groups and public figures who are concerned that it would give the government yet another tool to interfere with its citizens’ rights and their private sphere and would enable the policing of women’s bodies. [South China Morning Post]


22 September 2020

Cambodia: US sanctions Chinese-owned company for human rights abuses, corruption 

(jn) Last Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions against the Tianjin-based and state-owned Chinese Union Development Group (UDG) under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for developing the Dara Sakor tourism zone in Koh Kong Province at the Cambodian coast, in particular for “seizure and demolition of local Cambodians’ land”. UDG is also designated for falsely registering as a Cambodian-owned entity to facilitate the land deal and for pressing ahead with the development even though some of the land extends into a near National Park. 

The Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control explicitly faults UDG for advancing China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI) that like in many cases would disproportionately serve China’s interests but has forced locals from their land and devastated the environment. It claims that UDG, aided by already sanctioned Cambodian general Kun Kim, used military force to threaten and forcibly expel villagers living on the land in question. UDG had ignored both pleas by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) and orders by the Cambodian government to stop its militarized landgrab. 

Additionally, the Treasury voiced its concern that China could set up a military installation under the guise of the Dara Sakor project which could undermine stability and peace in the region. 

In 2008, UDG was granted a 99-year lease with the Cambodian government for 36.000 hectares on which the UDG then launched the $3.8 billion Dara Sakor project. As the Department also points out, the size of the grant is in violation of Cambodian law which limits land concessions to 10.000 hectares. [U.S. Treasury Department Press Release]

In an immediate response, both Cambodia and China have criticized and questioned the sanctions notification and its reasoning. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

Analysts and China-skeptics have long harbored doubts about the real intentions for developing Dara Sakor, because a military facility on the area could potentially upset the whole geopolitical balance of the region. The new port at Koh Kong will be a deep-water port and large enough to potentially host Chinese frigates and destroyers, as well as other vessels of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). According to experts, the Chinese consider commercial ports as a foot in the door for their navy, i.e. any deep-water commercial port has a potential dual purpose for receiving naval ships. A Koh Kong naval base would help China significantly shore up its blue-water capabilities to project power, and would be instrumental in protecting China’s sea lines of communication and maritime trade routes through the Malacca straits.

That is why Cambodia and its coastline have emerged as a strategic frontline amid the trade war and geopolitical tensions between the US and China given Beijing’s billion-dollar infrastructure investments there that amount to $34.1 billion since 2013. Phnom Penh has become the ASEAN-member that is China’s closest partner with implications both for the harmony within ASEAN and the South China Sea dispute. If the Koh Kong project indeed turns out to be a front for a Chinese naval base, it would put Cambodia firmly in China’s strategic camp at a time when US-China tensions are ratcheting in nearby waters.

Only in June of this year and July last year, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed reports as “fake news” according to which Cambodia had granted China exclusive access to a naval base in violation of its own constitutional provisions. The latest reports, however, did not concern the Dara Sakor project, but a second compound in Ream located further east at the Cambodian coastline [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. [The Diplomat 1] [Asia Times] [South China Morning Post]

UDG is not only under suspicion to be China’s toehold in Cambodia considering the shady circumstances of how the land deal come to fruition but also because satellite images have given away the construction of a 3.4 kilometer runway that is much longer than necessary for a tourist resort and similar to other Chinese military air fields elsewhere. US Vice President Mike Pence even penned a letter to Hun Sen cautioning against the project and Chinese overreach. 

Notably, the new sanctions slapped on UDG for the Koh Kong development touch on a potential military use but focus on human rights abuses and detail the (illegal) circumstances of the acquisition. This begs the question why the Koh Kong-site has come into the sanctions-crosshairs of the US at this very moment given that the development with all its surrounding problems has been ongoing since 2008 and that UDG is by far not the only Chinese-backed company that harnesses such controversial tactics. Furthermore, the Ream naval base has seen greater scrutiny in recent years for possibly being a front for a future Chinese military installation. Still, the UDG remains under credible suspicion of paving the way for a Chinese military base which is only one of many controversial aspects of the development. It is also likely that UDG is ripe fruit for a sanctions regime with which Washington aims to rein in Beijing’s quest for dominance in the region.

A Chinese naval base in Cambodia would also further encircle Vietnam in its geopolitical standoff with China over the South China Sea, and could even rouse Thailand that has been standing more aloof from the South China conflict. [The Diplomat 2]

22 September 2020

UN reveals push for investigating Thai activist’s forced disappearance

(jn) After Thai political activist Wanchalearm Satsakit’s fate has remained unresolved since he was abducted in broad daylight before his home in Phnom Penh on June 4 [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3], the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has now released a batch of correspondence with the Cambodian government.

Officials with the Office voiced their concerns that the Cambodian government did not undertake a full investigation into Wanchalearm’s disappearance despite Phnom Penh’s assurances that it had pursued all available leads. In July, in a letter to the Cambodian government they underlined “the importance of urgent action to ascertain his fate and whereabouts” and lamented the lack of new information on the activist’s disappearance, “despite the registration number of the car involved being known and there being multiple witnesses.”

As a red-shirt activist of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship Wanchalearm had sought exile in Cambodia after the military coup in Thailand in 2014, but remained politically active online, prompting Thai authorities to issue a warrant for his arrest in July 2018. [The Diplomat] [Khmer Times]

22 September 2020

Cambodia to raise minimum wage despite economic impact by inflation and pandemic 

(jn) Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor on Thursday announced a new minimum wage of $192 per month for 2021, an increase of $2 from this year, putting the country on a par with neighbors like Vietnam, but drawing criticism from workers struggling with inflation and amid an economy suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and the consequences of the end of the trade privileges under the former “Everything But Arms” scheme of the EU [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]. [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Times]


22 September 2020

Cambodian authorities detain second rapper over criticizing the government in his art 

(jn) Authorities in Cambodia have arrested another rapper on charges of “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” because he released songs suggesting that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s lack of leadership had led to economic decline in the country.

Long Puthera, who penned the track “Wipe Your Tears and Continue Your Journey, Khmer Eyes” was jailed based on Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code only days after a rapper had been arrested on the same grounds for criticizing the Cambodian government’s handling of its border dispute with Vietnam. The incidents are part of a recent wave of arrests that has engendered international criticism and concern, most notably from the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3]. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]


22 September 2020

Asian financial leaders agree to make ‘all policy efforts’ to fight pandemic

(jn) Financial leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia vowed on Friday to redouble their efforts to help the region recover economically from the coronavirus and to defend a multilateral system of trade and investment. In a joint statement they vowed to “remain vigilant to the continued downside risks [and to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to these risks and […] to continue to use all available policy tools to support the sustained recovery.” They also said they remain committed “to uphold an open and rule-based multilateral trade and investment system, and strengthen regional integration and cooperation.”

The statement followed the annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-member ASEAN. The meetings were held via teleconference on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). [Reuters]

15 September 2020

Cambodian TikTok-user arrested for disparaging Angkor Wat

(jn) A young Cambodian man popular on the TikTok social media platform was arrested after posting a video that questioned the country’s reverence for its famed Angkor Wat temple, even though he quickly deleted it and posted an apology, the police said Thursday. 

In the video posted Tuesday, the man, Nhel Thearina who has more than 100,000 TikTok-followers, asked: “Why does everyone love posting about Angkor Wat temple? […] [I]t does not belong to Cambodians, so don’t post it […].”

The police chief in the eastern province of Tbong Khmum, said Thearina was arrested shortly after posting the video because it could cause chaos in society. [AP]

15 September 2020

ASEAN foreign minister meeting held virtually with focus on South China Sea Dispute, pandemic and Rohingya crisis

(jn/nd) ASEAN’s foreign ministers conducted their annual summit by video on Wednesday to discuss how to overcome the immense challenges presented by the pandemic, rising tensions by the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea dispute while also touching on the continuing plight of the Rohingya refugees. The ministers were also scheduled to meet Asian and Western counterparts, like China and the US. The talks kicked off a four-day string of ASEAN meetings that were delayed by a month and were now held online to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Vietnam hosted the talks as this year’s chairman of the group. 

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the conference with a speech pointing out the repercussions of the pandemic on people and businesses while also acknowledging the “growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability” in the South China Sea, all of which required regional solidarity. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi addressed US and China representatives to not trap Indonesia in a regional struggle between the two. [Jakarta Post] Tensions between the two powers rose recently, not only with respect to trade and sanctions but because of the status of the South China Sea. Having become not only one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, these waters are also subject to various territorial claims with Chinese military maneuvers establishing facts on the ground. [See also AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]

China accused the US of becoming “the biggest driver of militarization” in the resource-rich waters. [Manila Times] This year, the US intensified “freedom of navigation” operations in South China Sea, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.

In fact, Marsudi referenced a joint statement given last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, showing they are united in their focus on peace and not taking sides as China-US relations are deteriorating. The latter fact was earlier emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was promoting an inclusive regional structure, with important regional powers such as Japan and India on the rise, and emphasized the importance of strong ASEAN cooperation, despite inward looking tendencies of the member countries. Because of its own claims and ethnic involvement, China was not able to fulfill the security role of the US. Still, the Belt and Road Initiative, he stressed, if carried out with financial prudence, is a step towards needed multilateral cooperation and to develop connectivity and infrastructure, which was neglected before. [Foreign Affairs]

In another virtual meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged ASEAN leaders to reconsider deals with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US for building island outposts which he said Beijing was using to “bully” rival claimants in the disputed South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] The Philippines referred to their need of Chinese investments, despite the two nation’s dispute over one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, Scarborough Shoal. [Manila Standard]

In their communiqué, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in, and overflight above, the South China Sea and underscored the need for giving effect to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They also commended the progress in negotiations with China on an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. First COC talks occurred in 2002 but have so long been without a result. [Hanoi Times] The text also mentions the concerns by some ministers on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea which, it states, have eroded trust, increased tensions, and may undermine peace and security in the region. [AP] [Al Jazeera] [ASEAN FM Communiqué] [Bangkok Post] [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Diplomat]

Another key project was establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy medical supplies and protective suits. A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies. The communiqué also calls for “enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN’s partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods.”

Referring to diminished regional movement and trade due to the pandemic, the statement also noted that members encouraged “the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region” by facilitating a resumption in the cross-border movement of people.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. During the last meeting, ASEAN reached a consensus agreement with four more states, France, Italy, Cuba and Colombia. [VN Express]

15 September 2020

Cambodia: New round of arrests and sentencings of activists elicit condemnation by rights groups, UN

(jn) In recent days, several Cambodian dissidents have been sentenced or jailed on charges of incitement or attempts to overthrow the government, a culmination of a string of arrests since July that rights groups have decried as an authoritarian crackdown against government critics.

Activist and former official of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Pen Mom (39) was sentenced to five years by a court in southern Cambodia for allegedly conspiring with exiled opposition party founder and leader Sam Rainsy to topple the ruling government in 2019. Pen Mom was among more than 100 party members arrested for mobilizing to welcome Rainsy’s planned return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile in Paris last November. However, the return was thwarted when Cambodian authorities barred him from entry [see AiR No. 42, October/2019, 3AiR No. 46, November/2019, 2]. 76 of the aforementioned 100 people arrested in 2019 were since released on bail. 

Human Rights groups have called on the government to also release Pen Mom and to end its campaign of fear and repression against human rights defenders. [Bangkok Post] [Radio Free Asia 1]

In yet another arrest, Muong Sopheak (24), the brother of leader of a student opposition group, was detained on charges of “incitement to provoke social unrest” following a court warrant. Sopheak had taken part in a protest organized by youth activists on September 6 in a Phnom Penh park, and in petitioning the U.S. Embassy to intervene in the cases of other activists who are jailed on similar charges. Two other activists had been arrested that day in what seemed to be a retaliation for planning a demonstration to call for the release of labor leader Rong Chhun who himself had been arrested in July. He was charged with incitement after publicly claiming that Cambodia’s government had ceded land to neighboring Vietnam. For the same reasons, authorities had already arrested six activists over the weekend of September 4-6 [see also AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2].

On Friday, the repression tactics of the Cambodian government came into international spotlight when the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a scathing indictment of the Cambodian government’s repression of its citizens, calling on its authorities to release those arrested for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association in the country.

In the statement, Bachelet said arrests of 24 human rights campaigners have been documented since Rong Chhun was taken into custody, including eight in September alone. While 13 were released after pledging to refrain from further rights activities, 12 remain in detention—most of whom face charges of “incitement to commit felony,” including three environmental activists.

The office also detailed numerous incidents of threats and intimidation against activists, of “unnecessary and excessive use of force” by security forces against protesters on multiple occasions as well as an ongoing crackdown against civil society organizations that has seen two groups shut down for “incitement”. The report called for the immediate release of political prisoners, and for an end of the violent crackdown and intimidation tactics against civil society actors. [Radio Free Asia 2] [Radio Free Asia 3] [OHCHR statement]

8 September 2020

Talks about minimum wages in garment industry over union protests

(nd) The first three-party meeting to set a minimum wage for garment and footwear industry workers for 2021 showcased the juxtaposition of employer representatives referring to economic struggles in the wake of Covid-19 and the respective union proposing an increase of $ 12. If determined, a minimum wage will affect about 800,000 workers from 1,000 factories. [Camboja News 1]

Athough Covid-19 numbers remain relatively low and Cambodia has not imposed severe lockdown measures, textile, tourism and aviation service industries are facing severe difficulties according to the Prime Minister. [Phnompenh Post]

Meanwhile, several garment unions joined together in a campaign directed against increasing discrimination, referring to union busting efforts that have been taken under the guise of necessary lay-offs due to Covid-19. Factories have been accused by union chiefs to unjustly firing union members, leaders and activists. [Camboja News 2]

8 September 2020

Cambodia: Committee on consumer protection installed

(nd) Following a sub-decree issued by the government, the National Committee for Consumer Protection (NCCP) is to prepare and promote the policy and strategic plan for consumer protection and necessary amendments to the law. The NCCP consists of officials from the Ministries of Commerce; Economy and Finance; Interior; Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation; Justice; Posts and Telecommunications; Health; and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; the National Bank of Cambodia; the Directorate-General of Consumer Protection, Competition and Fraud Repression (CCF); and the Council of Ministers. [Xinhua Net]

8 September 2020

US ambassador to meet Provincial governor over US investments 

(nd) US ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy met the Kampong Speu province Provincial governor to talk about strengthening cooperation with provincial authorities and consequentially thereby attracting US and foreign investors to the province. Murphy underlined that “increasing numbers of US investors looking at Cambodia in sectors like energy, manufacturing, technology and healthcare.“ [Phnompenh Post 1] According to National Bank of Cambodia, the US accounted for $10.9 billion (29 per cent) of Cambodian exports from January-September last year, the Kingdom for two per cent of US exports during the period, worth $16.5 million.

Under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, the US provides Cambodia with preferential trade access enabling duty free access to the US market. In 2019, almost $1 billion in travel goods were exported to the US under GSP. [Phnompenh Post 2]

Yet, Cambodia’s wartime debt to the US remains a sore issue to bilateral relations, since calls for its repayment were renewed in 2017. While lending about $ 270 million to Cambodia’s right-wing Lon Nol government under the USAID program “Food for Peace”, the US also dropped around 500,000 tons of bombs on eastern Cambodia in a bombing campaign that lasted from 1969 to 1973. Due to the destruction caused by it, the Cambodian government has refused pay backs. Therefore, a conversion of the debt into aid was suggested as well as the installment of an education and exchange program, which was established in 2000 with the Vietnam Education Foundation. In 1997, the Vietnamese government also signed an accord with the U.S. to pay $140 million in debt from the same “Food for Peace” program in 20 annual installments.

However, there is no written agreement for the payment, leaving it open whether it was considered debt or aid, said Chhang Song, information minister under the Lon Nol. According to US State Department officials, only lawmakers in the US Congress could determine a change of the debt status. [VOA Cambodia]

8 September 2020

Cambodia: Kem Sokha demands charges to be dropped

(nd) On the third anniversary of his arrest, former opposition party leader Kem Sokha demanded the charges of treason against him to be dropped and his political rights to be restored.

Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly trying to overthrow the government with the help of Washington, following a Cambodia’s Supreme Court ban of his party in November that year for its supposed role in the events, also banning 118 former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members from politics for five years. [Radio Free Asia] Meanwhile, political rights of three more ex-opposition politicians were restored following a royal decree signed by Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, making it a total of 12 politicians who have had their banned political rights lifted after a filed request. [] These 12 politicians formed two new parties, the Khmer Conservative Party and the Cambodian Nation Love Party. [Phnompenh Post] While the rehabilitation requests enable the affected politicians to return into politics earlier, they could be deemed as “party betrayal” by other former opposition members, according to Kin Phea, director of the International Relation Institute at Royal Academy of Cambodia.

Sokha’s lawyer iterated the ongoing suspension of the court proceedings could violate his client’s rights. Sokha’s trial was suspended in March due to concerns over potential Covid-19 transmission. [Cambodia Daily]

8 September 2020

Cambodia: National internet gateway deemed alarming

(nd) The “national internet gateway”, a yet-to-be-signed sub-decree drafted in July, was deemed alarming by human rights advocators. The government-appointed operator who will collaborate with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia and “relevant authorities”, according to Article 6 is “to take actions in blocking and disconnecting all network connections that affect safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, traditions and customs,” according to a translation of the law. This vague language leaves room for interpretation and could impact freedom of expression, said Ith Sothoeuth, media director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. Marc Einstein, chief analyst at Japan-based IT research and advisory firm ITR, said the infrastructure would give authorities greater online visibility and control, on the one hand helping tax collection and fight cybercrime but also appearing to have “a censorship angle” and could have an impact on connection speed. [Nikkei Asian Review]

8 September 2020

Cambodia: Protests over continuing arrest of union leader

(nd) Supporters and activists are continuing to protest for the release of prominent union leader Rong Chhun, after submitting petitions to a number of embassies, including the Japanese, German, EU and U.S. embassies, to intervene in cases of political prisoners. [Cambodianess 1] Furthermore, the movement called on international communities, notably countries that are signatories to the Paris Peace Agreements, to assert pressure on the government for the release of the detainees. [Camboja News]

President of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, Chhun was arrested late at night on July 31 home in Phnom Penh after allegedly criticizing the government regarding its border negotiations with Vietnam. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court formally charged Chhun with incitement to cause serious social unrest under Article 495 of the Cambodian penal code. [Cambodianess 2]

Recently, City Hall announced to use drones to monitor protestors, [VOD English], which, according to Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at rights group Licadho, said this was another level of intimidation, after authorities taking pictures photographing protesters.

Meanwhile, three environmental activists were charged with incitement to cause serious social chaos by the Phomn Penh Municipal Court. The members of the Mother Nature NGO were arrested on September 3 following a post of the NGO’s Facebook page, saying they would walk to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office dressed in white to request a personal meeting. The NGO thereby wanted to oppose sub-decrees issued to grant portions of Boeung Tamok Lake for public and private development projects, stressing the environmental repercussion of a partial fill of the lake. Within the lake boundaries or directly on its shores live about 319 poor families, according to the NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut. [Cambodianess 3]

Cambodia’s international recognition already suffered in February 2020 when the government was stripped of trade privileges under the Everything But Arms agreement, following the EU ascertainment of serious and systemic human rights abuses, with an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of the press and opposition groups, following the so-called “color revolution” narrative as a justification.

1 September 2020

China, Southeast Asian leaders meet to discuss the Mekong`s plight

(lm) At a time when the Mekong River’s health is in dire straits, leaders from China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam gathered on Monday for a virtual summit, the third leader’s meeting for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) platform. During the summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqian promised that Beijing would henceforth share the Lancang River’s hydrological data with the Lower Mekong countries. [The Diplomat]

Established in 2016, the LMC is a sub-regional cooperation mechanism that brings together the riparian countries of the vital waterway, which begins in China as the Lancang then traverses Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. For a second year in a row, the Mekong River is at a record low, with water levels across the Lower Mekong Basin down by two-thirds and rainfall for the three months of the current monsoon also down by about 70 percent.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Beijing has since constructed 11 giant dams along the mountainous territory of the Upper Mekong to sustain its ever-increasing energy needs. In April this year, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – representing Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – refuted a previously published US-funded report that had accused China of deliberately holding back water, significantly contributing to the major drought impacting the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Despite denying the allegations, however, the MRC did call on China for greater transparency in its water data.

In March this year, five provinces in Vietnam’s Mekong delta region had declared a state of emergency in face of continued extreme drought and salinity. A result of lobbying from international NGOs and internal reporting, shortly thereafter, the Cambodian government announced a decade-long dam moratorium on the mainstream of the river. The Cambodian moratorium leaves Laos, which commissioned two major dams in 2019, as the only Lower Mekong country pursuing hydropower on the mainstream of the river. [AiR No. 12, March/2020, 4] [AiR No. 10, March/2020, 2]

Beyond the Lancang/Mekong River`s plight, leaders on Monday also talked about strengthening their cooperation on public health, food supply chains, and a post-COVID-19 recovery of the region’s tourism industry. [TTR Weekly]

25 August 2020

Japanese Foreign Minister visits Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia

(jn) Japanese foreign minister Motegi Toshimitsu visited Laos from August 22-24 to mark the 65th Anniversary of diplomatic relations between Laos and Japan. Among several topics, both sides discussed whether to allow long-term residents of each other’s nations, and investors and businesspeople, to travel between the two countries while maintaining the requirement of a fourteen-day quarantine at home or at another designated area. Such travelers would be monitored throughout their stay, but it would make commerce possible, with the Lao side keen to see more Japanese businesses move their operations to Laos. [Laotian Times]

Mr. Motegi also visited Cambodia and Myanmar, where he met with his respective counterparts, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, and agreed to reopen borders for expatriates as soon as early September, relaxing travel restrictions that were imposed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic. Similar to the deal between Laos and Japan, expatriates and other long-term residents will be allowed to travel reciprocally provided they self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving and take other precautionary measures. [Nikkei Asian Review 1] [Nikkei Asian Review 2]

25 August 2020

Cambodian monk forced into exile by state-sponsored smear campaign

(jn/dql) A Buddhist monk and political activist, Luon Sovath, has left Cambodia for Switzerland after falling victim to a disinformation campaign by a Cambodian government cyber task force that framed him as a sexually deviant predator with the help of reportedly manipulated video material and fake Facebook profiles. Mr. Sovath was allegedly targeted by the government for becoming a celebrated political activist and for preaching human rights from his pagoda.

As the New York Times has uncovered, the rather amateurishly edited chats intended to expose Mr. Sovath were created by the so-called governmental Press and Quick Reaction Unit which also employs a “cyber war team”. The unit’s purpose was reported in local media in 2018 as to “carry out media work and react to content with a negative character coming from national and international media”. After being alerted to the fraudulent character of both the profiles and their content several times, Facebook ultimately took them down.

The incident illustrates some of the rougher methods of state-sponsored smear campaigns in the modern media age, but also the role of Facebook as the main, and sometimes sole, source of information and communication. Fake news, such as in this case, could spread relatively unchecked because the social media giant had not overseen the Cambodian user traffic with enough content moderators despite the known risk posed by disinformation campaigns and low digital literacy. [The New York Times]

The practices uncovered here are, however, in principle neither new nor limited to the region although they appear to be more dangerous with an entrenching digitalization of public and private life, the dominance of single social media corporations and with regard to countries providing a rule of law standard that is as compromised as the Cambodian.

For matters of context though: In 2014, Glenn Greenwald published on the British GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group’s practices to manipulate and control online discourse with tactics of deception and reputation-destruction by injecting “all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets”. See the intercept with examples from leaked intelligence documents. [The Intercept]

Shortly after, it has been reported how the British military and intelligence establishment worked on stopping Jeremy Corbyn from winning elections by unleashing dozens of scandals casting the Labour leader as a threat to national security. These leaks became the basis of 440 articles in the press. [Mint Press News

A classical book on Russian disinformation is “Dezinformatsia: The Strategy of Soviet Disinformation“ by Richard Shultz and Roy Godson.

Coming back to Cambodia, and given the general conditions there, the country’s November 2017 banned opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said Wednesday, the EU should go one step further after implemented its withdrawal of duty-free, quota-free access to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for some 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports. Similar to its reaction on the developments in Belarus, the EU should now consider to sanction also Cambodian officials responsible for human rights abuses.

Regarding Belarus, the EU announced to prepare a list of Belarusian officials to be hit with sanctions following a post-election crackdown on demonstrators. According to the CNRP “[t]he events in Belarus remind us of the oppressive methods used by the Cambodian regime, which has captured the state in the hands of limited circle of people close to the dictator Hun Sen through abuse of institutions and sham elections without participation of the opposition.” Claiming “the situation in Cambodia, just as the situation in Belarus, requires the immediate attention of the international community,” the CNRP statement underlines “just like in Belarus,” authorities in Cambodia have in recent months been arresting critics and driving much of the opposition into self-imposed exile to avoid politically motivated charges and convictions. [Radio Free Asia]

18 August 2020

Cambodia faces new EU tariffs over political repression while inching closer towards China

(jn) On Wednesday, the European Union partially suspended trade privileges it had granted Cambodia under its Everything But Arms scheme (EBA), responding to the Cambodian government’s persistent violations of human rights. As a consequence, Cambodia will lose the duty-free access for about 20% of exports to the bloc, or $1.1 billion of shipment, first and foremost affecting its vital apparel industries.

The decision had already been announced in February following a more than a year-long review by the European Commission (EC) that was triggered by a crackdown against opposition forces. In November 2017, the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was banned for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government, and its leader Kem Sokha was charged with treason. The continuing crackdown and political oppression helped Prime Minister and leader of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Hun Sen to win the controversial general election of 2018 in a landslide. During the year-long review alone, more than 60 CNRP members were arrested and many more intimidated or forced into exile. Only last month authorities arrested a prominent union leader, Rong Chhun, who had criticized the government for its handling of border disputes with Vietnam. Another opposition leader was taken into custody last week for challenging the government on the same issue.

The EBA establishes a duty-free and quota-free trade regime for all imports from Least Developed Countries except for armaments, provided the beneficiaries comply with international human rights law. Thus, reintroducing tariffs of up to 12% on Cambodian exports will hit the country especially hard considering 25% of its exports (or $6.4 billion in 2018) go to the EU and given the toll the pandemic has already taken on its economy. The move will hit in particular the country’s apparel industry, a $10 billion strong industry employing about 900,000 workers who have already suffered from mass layoffs and factory closures due to the pandemic. 

EU Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan explained that while the EBA was intended to help Cambodia develop an export-oriented industry, the EU was equally committed to the protection of human rights. He also made clear that trade preferences could be reinstated should the government show significant progress on civil and political rights, land disputes and labor rights as well as create the conditions for a credible democratic opposition. According to news sources the EC will continue to monitor the political development in the country and reserves the right to further impose tariffs on other exports.

Until now, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has, however, not shown any interest in complying with the EU’s demands, but seems rather comfortable with relying on Cambodia’s close partner China stepping into the breach. Both countries were supposed to sign a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) on Wednesday – symbolically the same day the new EU trade scheme took effect -, which, however, will primarily boost trade with agricultural goods and not fill the void in the reeling apparel sector. The Cambodian government has not gone into great detail publicly on the alleged benefits of the FTA, but experts estimate that the FTA will add less than 2% of GDP to the economy. What is more, Cambodian imports from China are almost five times worth its exports ($6.1 billion compared $1.3 billion in 2018), while exports to the US and the EU are almost ten times higher. The political symbolism of a closer Cambodian-Chinese relationship celebrated on the same day the EU punished Hun Sen for his repressive rule seems to be more significant than the economic benefits of the FTA. [Nikkei Asian Review] [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2] [euronews] [Asia Times]

11 August 2020

Thai Court ruling allows class action suit brought by Cambodian farmers  

(jn) The Bangkok South Civil Court ruled on July 31 that about 3000 Cambodian people who had allegedly been forcibly displaced by a land grab for purposes of agricultural exploration could proceed with their suit against the Thai company Mitr Phol. The plaintiffs seek compensation against the world’s fourth largest sugar producer whose subsidiaries they say had seized their land and bulldozed or burned down their homes twelve years ago in an effort to make way for sugar plantations in the Cambodian province of Oddar Meanchey.

In 2008 and 2009, the Cambodian government had approved the clearance of the territory that was assigned to future sugar plantations and part of a government plan to generate economic growth with the help of domestic and regional investors. After the affected villagers staged protests and the ongoing dispute could not be resolved, the Cambodian government declared a moratorium for new concessions, and promised to review those already granted. Mitr Phol eventually withdrew from Cambodia in 2015.

Progress of the suit turned out to be difficult at first, when a lower court dismissed it due to the plaintiffs’ lacking Thai language skills and the onerous communication with them in rural Cambodia. A pre-hearing is now scheduled for October, with the whole trial expected to last up to two years.

Human rights groups commended the ruling and interpreted it as a sign that transnational corporations in the region could not trust anymore in being shielded from accountability by national boundaries. It was also hailed as a remarkable ruling in that Thai courts are usually not expected to rule against their “own” Thai corporations. NGOs who had decried the forced displacement also criticized that Cambodian authorities had only partially and insufficiently compensated the villagers who often had to move to other areas or even became illegal migrant workers.

Mitr Phol said in a statement that it was committed to social responsibility and that in this case it had relied on the Cambodian government’s assurances that the land concessions were legal. It denied any human rights violations on its part. [South China Morning Post[The Diplomat]

11 August 2020

Cambodian public order bill elicits online backlash

(jn) A proposed law in Cambodia that would give the police the authority to fine people for dressing inappropriately [AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1] continues to raise concerns about undue infringement of personal liberties and reinforcing a culture of impunity around sexual violence. The bill has provoked outrage on the internet, especially among women, with one woman launching an online petition that garnered thousands of signatures while others woman protested the bill by posting pictures of themselves in swimwear and skimpy outfits. [South China Morning Post] [Vice]

4 August 2020

Cambodian public order bill would curtail liberty to dress freely

(jn) A proposed law in Cambodia would give the police the authority to fine people for dressing inappropriately raising concerns about undue infringement of personal liberties, especially of women, and about reinforcing a culture of impunity around sexual violence. It would prohibit men from being in public shirtless, and women from wearing anything “too short” or “too see-through”. The bill still requires the approval of several government departments and parliament before going into effect next year. While the government sponsoring the legislation justifies it with the need to preserve national traditions, human rights groups decry it as another sign of widespread sexism in the country where the bill would put women further at risk of sexual harassment and violence by fostering a culture of victim-blaming. [Straits Times]

14 July 2020

UN report on repressive COVID-19 responses: China, India, Cambodia, and Myanmar singled out as Asian examples for crackdown on free speech

(jn) The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, voiced serious concerns over new state measures restricting and punishing the free flow of information globally while presenting his latest report on freedom of expression and disease pandemics to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Many states had used the pandemic as a front to crack down on journalism and silence criticism. 

According to the Special Rapporteur states should address the following five challenges: 

  • “Reinforce access to information and share as much as possible about the course of the disease and the tools people should use to protect themselves and their communities. 
  • End the practice of internet shutdowns and other limitations on access to the internet.
  • Refrain from all attacks on the media and release all journalists detained, […].
  • Do not treat the so-called infodemic as a problem that criminalisation will solve. […].
  • Ensure that any public health surveillance measures are consistent with fundamental legal standards of necessity and proportionality and are transparent, non-discriminatory, limited in duration and scope, subject to oversight, and never be used to criminalise individuals.”

Cambodia’s mission to the UN in Geneva immediately denounced the Kingdom’s mention as misleading and faulty. It said that Kaye failed to recognize that the government was simply intensifying its efforts in containing disinformation and fake news amid the pandemic. [Phnom Penh Post]

Find a press release on the report here and [OHCHR] and the full report under [United Nations

The Special Rapporteurs are the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system and part of the Special Procedures off the Human Rights Council which is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For an interview with David Kaye on “COVID-19 and freedom of expression” see [Just Security]. 

14 July 2020

Cambodia on track to several new bilateral free trade agreements

(jn) Cambodia is on the verge of either initiating or concluding talks on bilateral free trade agreements (FTA) with three Asian nations:


Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is scheduled to sign an FTA in Beijing on 12 August. The FTA is expected to further deepen relations between Cambodia and China, boosting agricultural trade and building on existing trade ties.

The deal can be seen as another sign of the intensifying relationship with China that has become the Kingdom’s largest investor and its geopolitical backer in contrast to the West and sometimes even ASEAN.

According to government figures, bilateral trade in 2018 was around $7.4 billion and heavily skewed towards China that accounted for more than 80 percent of trade. Cambodia exported around $800 million, mostly in agricultural products, and imported large quantities of raw materials for the manufacturing and construction sectors.

This FTA is Cambodia’s first bilateral trade agreement with a foreign country and was negotiated against the backdrop of growing Chinese influence and investments in Cambodia’s economy. It has thus sparked not only concerns about China bear-hugging Cambodia and benefiting disproportionately, but also that it would do nothing to raise labor and environmental standards.

At the same time, on said 12 August when the FTA with China is expected to be signed, Cambodia is likely to see its long-standing ties with the European Union further decline with the expected partial suspension of the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade privileges. In a press release in February, the European Commission announced that it had decided to withdraw part of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the EU’s EBA trade scheme due to the serious and systematic violations of human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The withdrawal and replacement with the EU’s standard tariffs (“Most Favored Nation”) will affect selected garment and footwear products, travel goods and sugar. The goods in question amount to about one-fifth or €1 billion of annual exports to the EU. The new tariff regime will take effect unless the European Parliament or the Council object.

Phnom Penh hopes that the FTA with China will help offset losses incurred from the partial suspension of the EBA. [VOA][EC Press Corner]


The Cambodian Minister of Commerce said that in a meeting with the Indian ambassador to Cambodia on Wednesday they had discussed the possibility of concluding a Cambodia-India bilateral FTA. They had agreed to strengthen bilateral trade relations by establishing a Cambodia-India Joint Trade and Investment Working Group to facilitate trade and investment between the two states.

According to data from the Indian embassy in Cambodia, the trade volume between the two countries reached almost $250 million in 2019, up by more than 10 per cent compared to 2018. Cambodia exported goods to India worth about $80 million last year, up about 70 per cent from 2018, while imports amounted to almost $170 million, down 5.8 per cent. India invests almost $20 million annually, being among the top ten foreign investors in Cambodia. [The Star]

South Korea

Cambodia and South Korea agreed last Thursday to start official negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), with a first round of talks expected later this month. 

A statement by the South Korean Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy said that amid the spread of Covid-19 it had become more important for South Korea to expand cooperation with Southeast Asian countries. He said that FTA negotiations with Cambodia could potentially make it a future hub of production and trade among the ASEAN nations. The two countries would make efforts to come up with a meaningful result within this year.

The countries’ bilateral trade volume was at $1 billion last year, a six per cent annual growth since 2018, according to the Korea International Trade Association. Cambodia exported $336 million worth of goods to South Korea last year and had imports as high as $700 million. [Phnom Penh Post]

30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]


30 June 2020

Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute

(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]


30 June 2020

At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute 

(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.

ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.

On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. 

There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling. 

For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.  

The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.  

The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1]

The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]


30 June 2020

Cambodia’s Hun Sen prepares son as successor

(jn) Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, 67, has said that he was grooming his eldest son Hun Manet, 42, to become Prime Minister himself once he stepped down which would, however, not happen for another decade. He also vowed that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) would rule the country for as long as a century telling the opposition it should wait for the next life if it wanted to take over the country’s leadership.

Being one of the world’s longest-serving leaders after more than 35 years in power, Hun Sen said the CPP would not be challenged as governing party. Speaking of himself at another event he asked: “Who has the capability to replace Hun Sen right now? Let’s be honest and come out. There is no one.”

Hun Manet already holds the rank of a three-star general and the positions of deputy commander-general of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), army commander, commander of the anti-terrorism special forces, and deputy commander of bodyguards. He was appointed by Hun Sen to the position of the party’s central youth leader earlier this month, already being a member of the CPP’s standing committee.

The CPP has been in power since 1979 and holds every seat in the 125-member legislature after the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved in November 2017 ahead of the 2018 general election. [Radio Free Asia] [South China Morning Post]

23 June 2020

Cambodia: Chinese-made trucks given to Cambodian government by undisclosed donors

(jn) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, unveiled a shipment of 290 Chinese-made military trucks in a ceremony on Thursday, claiming the vehicles were not aid from Beijing but free gifts from “unnamed donors”. Hun Sen said that the trucks could be used during natural disasters and for defense purposes like in a border dispute with Vietnam. He denied that the vehicles, which were shipped to Cambodia, were donated by China that has long sought to deepen its political and economic sway over the country.

Critics fear that the trucks are supposed to help the government to more efficiently crack down domestically, rather than being used for defense purposes. According to Radio Free Asia, Hun Sen said last year that an additional $40 million would be spent on unspecified arms from China, on top of purchases from Beijing worth $290 million.

Cambodia and China conducted joint military exercises in March, lending credence to observations that both countries intensify their political, military and economic cooperation. [Radio Free Asia]

23 June 2020

Cambodia: HRW and families demand freedom for detained opposition activists 

(jn) Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday called on Cambodia’s government to stop using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to crackdown on the country’s political opposition. According to estimates by the rights group, 15 former officials and activists have been jailed on “fabricated political charges” since the coronavirus outbreak in January. In addition, another 80 people on bail would face potential re-arrest at any time, HRW said, calling on authorities to immediately release 32 detainees – including 23 opposition members – that it claims are being held on politically motivated charges. [HRW]

In another instance, a demonstration was held in front of a Phnom Penh Court on Friday, where around 20 family members demanded the immediate and unconditional release of members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) detained on charges of “incitement to commit a felony”.

The CNRP was dissolved by the Cambodian Supreme Court in November 2017 over its involvement in an alleged plot to topple the government. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

23 June 2020

Cambodia to dramatically cut budget

(jn) Amid the outbreak of the coronavirus,the Cambodian government under Prime Minister Hun Sen last week announced to slash next year’s state budget by 50% or $4 billion, including a 11.3% drop for social affairs, 6.4% for general administration, and 4% for defence. In April the government had already said it would cut this year’s budget by more than 10%. The announcement comes at a time when regional neighbours like Thailand or Singapore dig deep into their pockets to soften the economic blow from the pandemic. [Khmer Times]

According to the government’s national strategic budget plan (2021-2023), the country’s GDP is expected to shrink by almost 2% this year, but rebound by 3.5% next year, which is in line with World Bank estimates. The latter already declared in a report last month that the pandemic “poses the greatest threat to Cambodia’s development in 30 years”. It also estimated that almost 20% are now unemployed and poverty could increase by more than 10 percentage points, too.

The bleak economic outlook, however, has far outpaced the relatively mild impact of Covid-19 as the country has suffered no deaths and only 128 cases. Even though the government already prepared stimulus measures in February, much of the relief effort has not yet benefitted most of the intended recipients, and it is generally being doubted that Cambodia has the necessary fiscal reserves (up to $2 billion) as were originally announced to be made available.

Making matters worse, it is certain that government revenue is about to precipitously decline this year. With businesses collapsing and mass unemployment in the garment industry, the resulting loss of tax revenue will contribute to a projected fiscal deficit of 9% of the GDP, according to the World Bank. The World Bank also forecasts the “fiscal space” of the Cambodian government (the financial leeway after fixed expenditure) to decline to less than one third of the GDP in the coming years, down from 55% in 2016. [Asia Times] [Nikkei Asian Review]


16 June 2020

Cambodia opening investigation into forced disappearance of Thai dissident

(jn/ls) Cambodia’s national police has declared that it had launched an investigation into the recent kidnapping of Thai political activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 37, a sudden about-face for the department that had called his disappearance “fake news” only some days earlier [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. The same spokesman who had earlier denied any knowledge of an abduction rejected allegations by the country’s opposition and Wanchalearm’s supporters that Cambodian authorities had kidnapped him on Bangkok’s behalf.

Wanchalearm’s abduction in broad daylight on June 4 in Phnom Penh has been met with protests by human rights group that demanded an independent and transparent probe, and also demonstrations in Thailand. [Radio Free Asia]

Observers argue that enforced disappearances, which characterized Latin American politics for decades, are increasingly becoming a feature of Southeast Asian politics, too. Another prominent case is the Laotian community worker Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in 2014 after being stopped by the police, and others could be added. Activists and dissidents appear to be under increasing danger to their lives and well-being. [The Diplomat

9 June 2020

Thailand: Rights group says exiled Thai activist was abducted in Cambodia

(jn/lm) In a statement issued on Friday, Human Rights Watch said that Thai pro-democracy activist and dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit has been abducted in Phnom Penh on Thursday evening. Citing witnesses and apartment security cameras, the rights group said Satsaksit was kidnapped at gunpoint and manhandled into an unmarked vehicle as he walked on a street in front of his apartment in the Cambodian capital. [HRW]

Associated with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – commonly known as the “Red Shirts” – political movement, Satsaksit fled to Cambodia in 2014 to escape criminal charges for criticising the former Thai junta. From self-imposed exile, he continued to be politically active, operating a Facebook page critical of the Thai government. In 2018, an arrest warrant was issued by the Thai police alleging Satsaksit for violating the Computer Crime Act and committing lèse-majesté. [TIME]

According to human rights activists, Wanchalearm Satsaksit’s suspected abduction is the latest string in a series of disappearances of Southeast Asian political activists living in exile. In recent years, Thai authorities have aggressively pursued the apprehension of 29 pro-democracy activists who took refuge in neighbouring countries. Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia have repeatedly been approached by the Thai government to extradite these exiled activists, at least eight of which have become victims of enforced disappearance in 2016-2018. [HRW 2] [Bangkok Post 1]

The family of Wanchalearm Satsaksit on Sunday called on the government and international agencies to help find the activist. Rangsiman Rome, a Move Forward Party lawmaker and spokesman of the House committee on Legal Affairs, Justice and Human Rights said he would ask the committee on Wednesday to consider summoning state agencies to provide information on Mr Wanchalearm’s abduction. [Bangkok Post 2]

Protests flared outside the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok on Monday demanding an investigation and accused the Thai state of orchestrating the kidnapping. Throughout the weekend, Cambodian police as well as their Thai counterparts have remained tight-lipped on the activist’s whereabouts. The Cambodian police on Friday denied any knowledge of the abduction and refused to open an investigation into the alleged disappearance. [Bangkok Post 3] [France24] [SCMP]

9 June 2020

Cambodia: PM Hun Sen again denies Chinese naval base, 

(jn) Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday denied that his government was granting exclusive access rights to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) at the Ream naval base, an unresolved issue that has received critical scrutiny by ASEAN neighbors and the US. Last July, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had reported on a purported secret deal between China and Cambodia that would have a Chinese company construct new piers in exchange for a PLAN 30-year-long presence close to the South China Sea and beyond through the Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. Such a base would form part of a still evolving network of military and economic facilities along the primary maritime routes of southern Asia, often called China’s “string of pearls”. Concern among the US leadership already lead Vice President Pence to pen a cautionary letter to Hun Sen in 2018.

Hun Sen justified his public stance by stating that the constitution would not allow for foreign military bases, but any interested country could ask for permission to dock with its navy ships. In his careful wording he rather invited “anyone who wants to hold exercises on Cambodian territory” and said his country would “welcome aid from the US, France, Japan and China” to relocate a military training facility from Ream. He reiterated, that in order to build a new pier Cambodia would “need funds from China […] – but if you all want to give money, we would welcome it.”

A Chinese presence at Ream might not be so much a part of any blue water strategy given the relatively shallow waters and already existing outposts in the region, but it might have greater significance for China’s tense relationship with Vietnam whose claims to the South China Sea are just around the corner and who is already bristling at Chinese operations close to its coast.

In March, Cambodia hosted a joint military exercise with China that also become the country’s top defense equipment supplier. In 2017 it had cancelled an annual joint military exercise with the US scheduled for that and for the following year, which until now has not been resumed.

China is Cambodia’s biggest investor and closest political partner which in turn helps Cambodia offset the West’s distancing owing to its bleak human rights record. As the closest to Beijing among the ASEAN members Cambodia has also supported Beijing’s geopolitical positions, e.g. its territorial claims in the South China Sea. [The Diplomat 1] [The Diplomat 2[Bangkok Post] [WSJ]


2 June 2020

Cambodia invites foreign military for training

(ls) Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has invited foreign powers to conduct military training in the country. He said the country would “welcome all aid from the US, France, Japan and China” to move a military training centre from the Ream naval base to a new location. The Ream base is strategically well-located in the Gulf of Thailand. However, Hun Sen also insisted that he would not allow military bases to be established by foreign countries. [Channel News Asia]

Hun Sen further also reiterated that China would not receive any exclusive rights to make use of the Ream base. Cambodia hosted a joint military exercise with China in March as the coronavirus crisis was growing. China is Cambodia’s biggest investor and closest political partner. [The Diplomat]


19 May 2020

Layoffs in Southeast Asian garment industry leave workers in precarious situation

(ls) Thousands of garment factories across Southeast Asia have been shutting down, laying off workers after orders from major brands were cancelled due to limited demand in the Covid-19 crisis. In Cambodia, about 60,000 garment workers have lost their employment. In Myanmar, the number is at 58,000. Myanmar’s garment industry was the fastest-growing sector of the economy, accounting for about 10% of the country’s exports. The European Union has created a wage fund for workers in Myanmar worth 5 million euros. The government promised to cover 40% of the salaries of laid off workers. At the same time, factories that have reopened are struggling to enforce social distancing and hygiene practices in often cramped conditions. [Reuters]



19 May 2020

Cambodia: Owner of a radio station charged over fake news

(hg) The owner of the Rithysen radio station and website was charged under Article 495 of the Criminal Code with “incitement to commit felonies” for his coverage of a land dispute. His media coverage allegedly incited people to encroach upon state-owned land. If convicted, he faces a jail term of between six months and two years as well as a fine of one-to-four million riel (about $250 to $1,000). [Cambodia Daily]



5 May 2020

Cambodian state of emergency law takes effect

(jn) Last Wednesday, acting head of state of Cambodia Say Chhum signed the state of emergency law though questions over its fast-track approval and implications of its broad wording continue to linger. Say Chhum stood in for King Norodom Sihamoni who had traveled to China for a medical visit. The National Assembly, the Senate and the Constitutional Council had all approved the bill unanimously last month. [Asia in Review, No. 17, April/2020, 4]

The law has engendered criticism among domestic and international observers – including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia – that it is open to human rights abuse and that its relatively swift legislative process lacked any public debate and input of experts. A former lawmaker of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said, while criticizing its obscure scope, that he was not against the emergency law per se, yet the current COVID-19 situation in Cambodia did not call for the declaration of a state of emergency. [Khmer Times] [VOA]

Should a state of emergency be declared in the near future, it is expected to further exacerbate the already difficult working environment for journalists during the pandemic since the government has been accused of taking advantage of the virus outbreak to crack down against opposition supporters and governments critics. 

Other than neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, his government did not order greater measures to be taken. Garment factories that were declared economically crucial stayed open. Despite the virus outbreak, the government also went ahead with the largest-ever joint military exercise with China. [RFA] [uca news]


28 April 2020

Cambodia: Emergency law approved by Constitutional Council

(jn) On Monday the Constitutional Council of Cambodia unanimously passed the bill of the state of emergency law that is officially intended to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2. After it had already received unanimous approval in the National Assembly and in the Senate, it is only pending royal assent by King Norodom Sihamoni to come into effect. [Khmer Times]

The bill grants the executive sweeping powers for an initial period of three months, including restrictions and bans on the distribution of information as well as providing for monitoring and surveillance “by all means.” Such emergency powers for Prime Minister Hun Sen have come under intense scrutiny and criticism as they give broad discretion which kind of emergency measures are deemed appropriate and necessary [Asia in Review, No. 15, April/2020, 2]

In a statement, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia warned that “the broadly worded language on the protection of national security and public order, ostensibly aimed at addressing COVID-19, can potentially be used to infringe on the right to privacy and unnecessarily restrict freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.” Human Rights Watch’s Asia director said that the law would grant Hun Sen “almost unlimited powers for an unlimited period of time.”

The passage of the bill comes less than a week after two opposition figures of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were arrested and each charged with incitement to commit a felony and inciting the public against the king, respectively. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

14 April 2020

Cambodia: Emergency laws prepared 

(jk) Cambodia may soon join the countries currently operating under emergency rule in the fight against Covid-19. Parliament approved such legislation last week. The legislation is currently being discussed in the Senate. [Khmer Times]

Much like in the case of the Philippines and Thailand [Asia in Review No. 13, March/2020, 5], or maybe even more so, there is widespread concern over increasing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s power after he already heavily curtails democratic freedoms and opposition forces in the country. The new legislation, unsurprisingly, is formulated very broadly and includes wording such as “other measures that are deemed appropriate and necessary in response to the state of emergency”. [The Guardian]  [The Straits Times]

Fanning concerns over a misuse are numerous stories of how powers are used in Cambodia to stifle dissent and critics in general. In an incident last week, a journalist was charged with incitement after he had “accurately posted on Facebook a comment by Hun Sen […] telling motorbike-taxi drivers who go bankrupt because of the coronavirus outbreak to “sell your motorbikes … [because] the government does not have the ability to help.” Allegedly, the reported had tried to incite chaos and harm social security by “selecting” this quote and not making clear that the PM was joking. [Radio Free Asia]

31 March 2020

Cambodia: Ongoing crackdown of opposition figures and activists 

(jk) Cambodian police have over the past week arrested two former officials of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), allegedly without warrant or explaining the reasons for the arrests.  The harassment of CNRP activists continues to increase, and many “are now believed to be held in the country’s jails, mostly without a warrant, with many more having been summoned to appear in court related to their support of Sam Rainsy’s plan to return late last year”, according to [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]. 

24 March 2020

Cambodia: No new dams along the Mekong

(ls) Cambodia announced that it will not develop new hydropower dams on the Mekong River for the next 10 years. According to a government spokesperson, the country plans to develop coal, liquified natural gas and solar energy, and wants to also rely on energy imports from neighboring countries. Cambodia had previously announced plans for two dams. Laos, on the other hand, has opened two new dams on the mainstream Mekong in the past six months and is the only country in the Lower Mekong Basin planning more hydropower on the river. Local communities have warned that dams will harm fisheries and farming. [Straits Times]

24 March 2020

Cambodia: Court affirms conviction of former CNRP member

(ls) A Cambodian appeals court has upheld an 18-month jail sentence for a member of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party for “insulting” posts he made on Facebook in early 2019 criticizing government policies. In more recent developments, authorities are reported to have arrested several people for posting COVID-19 related concerns on Facebook. [RFA]

17 March 2020

Vietnam-Cambodia Naval Ties 

(hg) Vietnam and Cambodia held the latest in a series of frequent joint maritime patrols earlier this month. The patrol highlights the existing bilateral defense relationship between the countries despite the fact that Cambodia represents the ASEAN member state arguably closest to China while Vietnam is arguably most critical of the Chinese role in Southeast Asia. In light of increasing Chinese assertion with regard to the South China Sea, the rather regular patrol has some significance. [The Diplomat]

17 March 2020

Cambodia: Golden Dragon exercise with China taking place, despite COVID-19 outbreak

(jk/ps) More than 3000 soldiers were moved to Kampot province, Cambodia for the 4th annual Golden Dragon military exercise [AiR No. 9, March/2020, 1], held from March 15 – 30, despite COVID-19 fears.

Although other big military exercises have been cancelled or scaled back across the globe,  Cambodia and China conduct their military exercise during the virus outbreak. According to a Cambodian General the Chinese conduct health checks and brought health officials along. Furthermore, the Cambodian soldiers are from an area close to Laos where the virus has not been detected yet. The decision to hold the fourth annual Golden Dragon joint military exercise demonstrates support for China over its handling of the pandemic. [Khmer Times]

17 March 2020

Cambodia: US Ambassador to Cambodia troubled by “fabricated conspiracy theories” in treason trail 

(ps) After Cambodian prosecutors accused opposition leader Kem Sokha of conspiring with the United States to overthrow leader Hun Sen [AiR No. 3, January/2020, 3], the US ambassador to Cambodia said he is troubled by fabricated conspiracy theories.

Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 and his party banned in a government crackdown on opposition which was one of the reasons the EU removed some of its trade preferences to Cambodia. [AiR No. 7, February/2020, 3]

The US government has made it abundantly clear that they have never sought to interfere in Cambodia’s governance and that they respect Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty, the US ambassador said. [The Japan Times]


10 March 2020

Cambodia to sign Free-Trade Agreement with China

(ps) Cambodia and China are planning to sign a Free-Trade Agreement later this year after Prime Minister Hun Sen and President Xi had first negotiations last month in Beijing. Further talks are planned for the middle of the year with both parties being expected to sign the agreement by the end of the year. Trade figures between the two nations have increased steadily from $5.16 billion in 2016 to $7.4 billion in 2018 with the aim of reaching $10 billion by 2023. After partially loosing trade preferences to the European Union [AiR No. 7, February/2020, 3] Cambodia is still seeking for FTA’s with other economies like South Korea or the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). [Khmer Times]


3 March 2020

Parallel to “Cobra Gold”, China and Cambodia hold joint military training “Golden Dragon 2020”

(jk) The Chinese and Cambodian armies hold a joint military training in Cambodia beginning this week, focussing on joint counter-terrorism combat. This joint training is the fourth of its kind. [Xinhua]

Last week, the Cobra Gold 2020 military exercise began in Thailand with nearly 10,000 participating soldiers from 29 countries, including the PRC, but with only seven countries participating the “main drills”. These are Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and the US. Cobra Gold is of particular importance to the coordination between the armed forces of the United States and Thailand. [Bangkok Post


18 February 2020

Cambodia: EU partially suspends trade preferences 

(jk/fs) After a year-long review and a preliminary report in November last year (Asia in Review No. 51, December/2019, 3Asia in Review No. 51, December/2019, 4), the European Commission made its decision regarding the future of Cambodia’s Everything-But-Arms (EBA) trade preferences.

Last week, the Commission announced the partial suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade preferences with the European Union after the government failed to improve its human rights situation. Instead of preferential tariffs, the usual EU tariffs now apply to certain clothing and shoes, sugar and products for travel needs from Cambodia. According to the Commission, this affects around a fifth of Cambodian exports to the EU, which corresponds to around one billion euros.

The Commission justifies the step by saying that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has acted unduly against the opposition, civil society groups and the press in the past three years. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said the EU “will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced.” The measure against Myanmar will come into effect on August 12, unless the member states in the Council and the European Parliament object. 

The EU is willing to fully reinstate Cambodia into the EBA trade scheme if the country demonstrates improvements in human and labour rights and the democratic situation. The EU will continue to monitor and assess the country’s development. [South China Morning Post] [Asia Times]

Despite obvious human rights violations and the undermining of democratic and judicial processes in Cambodia, the EU’s decision is not without critique. In addition to driving Cambodia even further into Chinese arms by reducing its trading options elsewhere, very valid concerns relate to who actually suffers from these punitive measures. While they most likely fail to effectively address the actual target – PM Hun Sen and the political elite – they will certainly punish those who work in the factories to produce much of Cambodia’s exports and those the workers support with their modest earnings. In [Nikkei Asian Review], one commentator points out the sad irony that “EBA removal will cause substantial pain to the most vulnerable Cambodians, who are now paying the price of the elite’s poor human rights record twice: first as the victims of the country’s abuses and then as the victims of the EU’s punitive measures.” 


4 February 2020

Cambodia: Upcoming launch of digital currency

(fs) The National Bank of Cambodia reportedly plans to launch a peer-to-peer blockchain payment and money transfer platform, based on central bank digital currency (CBDC) in the next few months. 

If the “Project Bakong” gets launched as planned, it will be used for everyday purchases from users’ mobile services via QR- based transactions, National Bank officials say. According to Phnom Penh Commercial Bank President Shin Chang Moo, with already eleven of the biggest national banks involved, “Bakong will create a financially inclusive ecosystems that all the stakeholders in the industry can benefit from.” For Cambodia, this is the first project of its kind. [Coindesk]


28 January 2020

Cambodia: International apparel brands pressure Cambodia for labor law reform

(fs) Leading global fashion brands, among them Puma, Adidas and Levi Strauss wrote a letter to Cambodia’s government in which they appealed to Prime Minister Hun Sen to amend a trade union law, repeal the law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and drop all outstanding criminal charges against union leaders. Reason for this letter is the country’s record on labor and human rights threatening to evoke trade sanctions from the European Union.

In its preliminary record, the EU prospected the temporary suspension of the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences if Cambodia would not undertake extensive changes in matters of the human rights’ situation [Asia in Review, No. 47, November/2019, 3], which in turn would affect the located fashion industry.

According to the brands’ letter “the credibility of Cambodia’s apparel, footwear, and travel goods sectors are at stake”. Nearly half of Cambodia’s textile industry export is distributed in Europe. Employing about 700,000 people and accounting for 40 percents of the GDP, it is the county’s biggest industry. [Reuters]

A Cambodian official labeled the letter as “uncouth” and says it should be seen as an “intervention in the country’s legal system and matters which concerns political stability” and advised that the brands should instead “urge the EU on this matter as they have an equal responsibility in this”. [Khmer Times]

A final decision about the temporary suspension of the EBA trade preferences will be made in February.


21 January 2020

Cambodia: Khem Sokha trial begins

(fs) The trial against former leader of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party Kem Sokha began last week at Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Sokha was arrested in 2017 for charges of plotting the overthrowing of ruling party leader Hun Sen. He told the press “I know strongly that I am totally innocent, so I have to go to the court and challenge the charge and demand that they drop the case”. He faces 30 years in prison. [The Guardian]

Human rights group Amnesty International also urged the charges to be dropped, criticizing that “after two years held in arbitrary detention, the authorities have not presented a shred of credible evidence to support a charge of treason”. [Amnesty]

For the first two days of the process, members of the media and civil society were excluded by the court, a decision heavily objected by these. [Reuters]


7 January 2020

New Year messages in Cambodia 

(fs) In his New Year message, the National Police Commissioner praised last year’s work of the Cambodian police, referring to its engagement in cracking down on political activists and opposition. In particular, he mentioned fending off a political coup led by opposition figure Sam Rainsy. He also lauded the cooperation between the national police and armed forces in maintaining peace and public order under the leadership of prime minister Hun Sen. [Khmer Times]

Reacting to his message, several Cambodian activists raised concerns whether the country’s current situation could be described as peaceful calling it a “political crisis and increasingly chaotic” and at the same time criticizing that “in Cambodia, those who dare to destroy the country and please Hun Sen are the ones who are rewarded.” Khem Sokha expressed hope to his supporters that the “new decade may change the course of history and lead Cambodia to real peace”. [Radio Free Asia]


31 December 2019

Cambodia: Hearing against Cambodia Daily reporters delayed by court

(fs) A hearing in the process against two former Cambodia Daily reporters is postponed by the provincial court for an indefinite period, citing the absence of a judge. [VOD]

Both journalists, who currently do not reside in the country, were filed with charges of “incitement to commit a felony” in August 2017 for conducting interviews of registered voters regarding a community election during which local officials urged journalists not to interview residents. If convicted, the journalists face up to two years in prison.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch called the prosecutor’s decision “intended to intimidate all of Cambodia’s journalists” and demanded to “drop these bogus charges and the government should end its efforts to restrict press freedom by criminalizing independent reporting.” [Human Rights Watch]


31 December 2019

Cambodia: Airstrip stirs more suspicions about China’s plans 

(jk) Dara Sakor in Cambodia is located in the countries south along its coastline facing the Gulf of Thailand. For a while now, it has been a “Chinese investment zone that comprises 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline”, and construction is booming. [Japan Times] [Asia in Review No. 30, July/2019, 4]

Recent Chinese activity there and “other nearby Chinese projects [are] stirring fears that Beijing plans to turn this small Southeast Asian nation into a de facto military outpost.” Among the projects and due completion next year, are not only hotels and restaurants, but also crucial infrastructure projects such as port facilities and the Dara Sakor International Airport, set to become the longest runway in Cambodia. Chinese assurances of all infrastructure being purely for civil use has done little to dispel concern over the military or dual-use possibilities that come with building and running such infrastructure. [The New York Times]


24 December 2019

Cambodia: Online gambling ban will come into effect on 1st of January 2020

(fs) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that with the ending of this year, all existing online gambling licenses will expire, enforcing the country’s new ban of online gambling. He substantiated the government’s decision in this matter with the uncontrollable growth of organized crime and money laundering, both risking the kingdom’s safety and its attractiveness for good-intentioned international investors. In August of this year the relevant ministries were instructed to stop issuing new licenses and renewing existing ones.  [Phnom Penh Post]


24 December 2019

Cambodia to issue own report on indigenous people’s situation

(fs) Continuing the dispute about the EU’s evaluation of the human rights situation in Cambodia [Asia in Review No. 51, December 2019/3], Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that a report addressed to the EU will display the country’s achievement in the protection of indigenous people’s rights. The report will be defended in Geneva. A Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) spokesperson denied any form of discrimination against indigenous people in Cambodia or other ethnic conflicts, referring to the inclusion of Kuoy, Bunong, Sam Rae and Cham people.

In opposition to this, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) said the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s (CERD) report raised concerns about hate speech, including such by political leaders, against indigenous people and disclaims that the country’s efforts were sufficient to remedy the inequalities experienced by ethnic minorities. [Phnom Penh Post]

Just last week [Asia in Review No. 51, December 2019/3], the Cham people living in the Mekong delta were commanded to leave said area in order to “beautify” Phnom Penh in anticipation of the upcoming Asia Europe Meeting in 2020.


17 December 2019

Cambodia: Muslim minority group faces eviction from Phnom Penh

(fs) In anticipation of the upcoming Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2020, Phnom Penh’s district governor ordered members of the Cham community to leave the city’s area within a week in the intention of “ensuring safety, security, beauty and public order”. This direction affects a large part of the approximately 600,000 Cham living in Cambodia. Persecuted under the Khmer Rouge reign, the Muslim minority still remains marginalized these days. In preparation for former events, evictions, relocations and arrests often were the means of choice for Cambodian authorities, for example at Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2016 or the ASEAN summit in 2012. [Al Jazeera]


17 December 2019

Cambodia responds to EU over human rights concerns 

(fs) Following the EU’s preliminary report on the temporary suspension of the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences to Cambodia from November  [Asia in Review, No. 47, November/2019, 3] in matters of the country’s current human rights situation, Cambodia submitted its reply after the given deadline expired on Thursday. The EU demanded the restoration of democracy, respecting human rights, fundamentals of personal freedom and the end of repression against civil society organizations and independent press. In particular, the EU requested Cambodia to drop the treason charges against CNRP leader Kem Sokha.

Cambodia’s government urged to consider that “nearly one million of female workers and indirectly their families would be affected by the retrieved trade scheme”. In addition, it encouraged the EU “to take the government’s good faith effort to implement all the relevant international conventions under the EBA regulations into account”. Further submission to the EU’s demands in the case of Kem Sohka were declined by Prime Minister Hun Sen. A final decision about the temporary suspension will be made in February.  [Khmer Times]


3 December 2019

Cambodia: PM Hun Sen thanks Donald Trump for not seeking regime change

(jk) As reported a couple of weeks ago, the European Union – which initiated the procedure to temporarily withdraw tariff preferences granted under the Everything But Arms (EBA) arrangement in February this year – will decide early next year of how to proceed in the matter. [Asia in Review, No. 47, November/2019, 3]

Cambodia, increasingly looking for partners in China amid political pressure from the West, has openly reconsidered its ties with both the US and the EU. US President Donald Trump has reached out to Hun Sen in a letter offering to improve ties again, but also urging him to put democracy in Cambodia back on track. Hun Sen has reacted positively and replied that he thanked the US President for his assurances that the US was not seeking regime change in Cambodia. [Reuters]

19 November 2019

Cambodia: PM says opposition leader Kem Sokha will face treason trial 

(jk) Kem Sokha, one of the co-founders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved last year, has recently been freed from house arrest and rumours emerged that he will soon be pardoned by the king regarding his charges of plotting to overthrow the government. The court closed the investigation into his case last week, but Hun Sen, the PM,  has stressed this week that Sokha would still face trial. He is banned from leaving Cambodia as well as from taking part in politics inside the country. [Channel News Asia]

19 November 2019

EU to decide on continuation of Trade Preferences for Cambodia early next year

(jk) The European Union has completed a preliminary report on the temporary suspension of trade preferences to Cambodia and forwarded it to the government.  The EU remains concerned about the human rights situation in Cambodia, which now has one month to respond to the report. The final decision will be made in February next year. [European Commission]

The decision to initiate the procedure to temporarily withdraw tariff preferences granted under the Everything But Arms (EBA) arrangement over concerns related to serious human and labour rights violations was made in February this year. The EU is Cambodia’s largest trading partner, accounting for about 45% of Cambodian exports in 2018, with almost all exports falling under the EBA agreement.

12 November 2019

Cambodia: Opposition politicians stuck in Malaysia

(ls) The Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy landed in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, where he continues to reside for the time being. He had vowed to return to Cambodia on 9 November to rally opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Previously, the Thai government, citing the ASEAN principle of non-interference, refused him to return to Cambodia via Bangkok. Meanwhile, police lined up at Cambodia’s Poipet border crossing with Thailand, where Rainsy had said he planned to cross into the country. [Channel News Asia] [Bangkok Post 1]

The co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) faces imprisonment in Cambodia for convictions on charges that he maintains are politically motivated, with charges on other offences pending. Hun Sen, whose government has arrested about 50 opposition activists in recent weeks, earlier characterized the plan by Rainsy and several colleagues to return and hold rallies as an attempted coup. [Bangkok Post 2]

Previously, also Mu Sochua, who was CNRP vice-president, arrived in Malaysia along with two other Cambodian activists. Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said his government had received a request from Cambodia to deport them but had yet to make a decision on this. [The Star]

At the same time, the Cambodian government lifted house arrest restrictions on opposition leader Kem Sokha, more than two years after he was charged with treason. He was arrested in 2017. In 2013, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy had brought together rival opposition factions and posed an electoral threat to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). [Reuters]

Pressure has been growing on the Hun Sen government to ease a crackdown on his opponents as the European Union considers whether to cut preferential trade terms under the Everything But Arms scheme.

5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]

5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]

15 October 2019

Cambodia: Upcoming return of Sam Rainsy sparks concerns

(ls) As leaders and supporters of Cambodia’ dissolved main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), announced to return to Cambodia from a four-year exile next month (Nov. 9), prime minister Hun Sen said he would regard their comback as an attempted coup d’etat. From his exile, CNRP founder Sam Rainsy has called for an uprising against the longtime leader. The CNRP had been disbanded months before 2018’s election by the Supreme Court, following the 2017 arrest of party leader Kem Sokha. [Reuters]

Cambodian authorities have already launched a crackdown on activists and opposition supporters. 37 activists affiliated with the party and former officials have been arrested this year and placed in pre-trial detention; thirteen in September. Since then, four more members have been arrested. [Cambodia Daily]

8 October 2019

Cambodia – Vietnam and Cambodia – Laos ratify border demarcations

(jk) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc have ratified 84 percent of border demarcation work completed between the two nations on their 1,270-kilometre border. [Khmer Times] Cambodia shares another border with Laos, which is also undergoing a demarcation process. PM Hun Sen  and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith ratified 86 percent of the border between their two countries last month. [Bangkok Post]

1 October 2019

Deportations of Cambodians from the United States on the rise

(ls) As dozens of Cambodians with criminal convictions are about to be removed from the United States, Asian American groups are objecting to the Trump administration’s efforts to step up deportations of Cambodians. The deportations have been happening since about 2002, when Cambodia agreed to begin repatriating refugees convicted of felony crimes in the U.S. But they have risen by about 280% since Donald Trump took office and imposed visa sanctions on Cambodia and a handful of other nations in order to compel them to speed up the process. [Voice of America]

17 September 2019

Cambodia and Laos agree to demarcate their border

(ls) The leaders of Cambodia and Laos agreed to step up efforts to complete the demarcation of their border, where disputes have led to armed confrontations in recent years. Currently, 86 per cent of the border has been marked. Cambodia and Laos reportedly dispatched troops to the border region last month in a stand-off over the disputed boundary. There was a similar confrontation in August 2017 when Laos objected to Cambodia’s construction of a road in disputed territory. [Straits Times]

10 September 2019

Cambodia: Two Indian naval ships dock in Sihanoukville

(jk) Amid much discussion on Cambodia’s ever-closer relationship with the PRC, two Indian naval vessels arrived for a four-day goodwill visit to Sihanoukville harbour at the end of last month, intended to boost bilateral ties between Cambodia and India. The two countries held a joint maritime exercise this week. [Khmer Times 1, Khmer Times 2]

3 September 2019

Cambodia: 28 civil society and human rights organizations pressure UN Human Rights Council

(ls) In a letter sent to the UN Human Rights Council, 28 civil society and human rights organizations have alerted the governments represented in this body to an ongoing human rights crisis in Cambodia. The organizations write that, since the last Council resolution was adopted in September 2017, the situation of human rights in Cambodia, including for the political opposition, human rights defenders, and the media, has drastically worsened. [Human Rights Watch]

Date of AiR edition

News summary

Web links

16 July  2019

Cambodia’s open doors for Chinese business: The case of Sihanoukville

(ls) The Cambodian city of Sihanoukville has seen a massive influx of Chinese in recent years. Almost 90 percent of business operations in the city, ranging from hotels, casinos, restaurants to massage parlors, are run by Chinese. The local population is, according so some estimates, already outnumbered. The collapse of a Chinese-owned building under construction last month that claimed 28 lives led to calls for the Cambodian government to exercise tougher controls. On the other hand, people living in Sihanoukville have the real chance of becoming rich overnight for just selling their land or leasing it to Chinese. [Kyodo News]

While Sihanoukville is an extreme case, it is not the only place in Cambodia that is looking more like China. In Phnom Penh, many construction sites for high-rise buildings hoist Chinese signboards. Chinese capital has underpinned Cambodia’s high economic growth, which has hovered around 7% for years now. In 2017, foreign direct investment in Cambodia totaled $2.1 billion, with China accounting for 70%. [Nikkei Asian Review]

9 July  2019

Cambodia: Hun Sen condemns use of rights as political tool

(dql) In a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council last week Cambodia’s Premier Hun Seen fiercely rejected Western pressure over his government’s human rights record, criticizing “groups and institutions” for refusing to acknowledge his country’s efforts in improving human rights as they pursue a political agenda of regime change in Cambodia “at all costs” and accusing them of “implementing double standards in assessing human rights practices in Cambodia, in order to slow down development and harm Cambodia’s dignity”. He, furthermore, blasted certain influential countries for using human rights as an instrument to interfere with weaker nations’ sovereignty and independence. [Phnom Penh Post]

In a related development, the Cambodian government decided to accept 173 out of 198 recommendations made by 73 UN member states during the Kingdom’s third Universal Periodic Review. 25 recommendations related to the Cambodia National Rescue Party which was dissolved last year were rejected as politically motivated. [Khmer Times]

11 June 2019

Singapore Prime Minister’s post on the 1978 Vietnam-Cambodia issue upsets both countries

(cl) On May 31st, Prime Minister Lee posted on Facebook that the then-five Association of Southeast Nation members previously came together to oppose “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge”. In a 2011 speech, former deputy prime minister said that Singapore had to respond to the “invasion of a smaller county by a larger neighbour” or it would have undermined the credibility of Singapore’s foreign policy and had serious implications for its security, adding that this would create an undesirable precedent for small nations. [Straits Times]

However, Cambodia and Vietnam have objected to PM Lee’s remarks. Cambodia Defence Minister General told media that his comments were “unacceptable”, and Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Mr Lee’s remarks did not “objectively reflect the historical truth”. Cambodia’s Prime Minister further accused PM Lee of supporting genocide. [Reuters] In response, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last Friday that Singapore is committed to building on its good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia. It added that last Friday, Singapore’s Foreign Minister spoke with Vietnamese and Cambodian Prime Ministers, who agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences, they have taken a path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship. [Channel News Asia]

28 May 2019

Cambodia: Remembrance complicated by politics

(ls) On the occasion of the annual observance marking the day in 1975 when the communist regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge began the mass killings of the Cambodian genocide, a Time article looks at the fact that remembrance is complicated by the purpose the day has served for the governments that followed the Khmer Rouge. It argues that the questions it raises are profound: What does it mean when a government decrees that the past must be remembered in a certain way? And how do you memorialize something you can’t forget? [Time]

28 May 2019

Cambodia: CPP dominates council elections

(ls) Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has garnered most of the votes on Sunday in municipal, provincial and district council elections. The CPP earned 11,123 out of 11,565 votes cast by commune councillors. Municipal, provincial and district councillors are determined not by universal elections but by commune councillors every five years. [Khmer Times]

4 March 2019

Cambodia: Government offers political comeback to opposition leaders – but they reject

(ls) Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has amended the political parties law to allow former members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to conduct political activities again. However, CNRP leaders rejected the move, saying it would legitimize the dissolution of the party. More than 100 former CNRP officials were banned from politics for five years in a Supreme Court decision in November 2017. The party was dissolved over allegations party officials conspired with the United States to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen. In the ensuing election, the CPP won all seats in parliament. [VOA]

4 December 2018

Cambodia and Nepal sign agreements

(hg) Cambodia and Nepal signed four agreements to expand economic, diplomatic and political relations on occasion of the Asia-Pacific Summit 2018 in Nepal. Moreover, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Nepalese President Bidhya Devi Bhandari agreed to facilitate direct flights between their countries and envisioned further steps to deepen relations. Both countries have their good relations with China in common. [Khmer Times]

4 December 2018

An assessment of China-Cambodia military and economic ties

(ls) Prashanth Parameswaran assesses the current state of Chinese-Cambodian ties in terms of military and economic cooperation. China has long been a key defense partner for Hun Sen’s Cambodia, including its top provider of military equipment. Beijing has also provided support for the development of Cambodia’s naval capabilities including financing for the purchase of patrol boats and upgrades to a naval base. Parameswaran describes how new dynamics in recent years have deepened relations still further. [The Diplomat]

27 November 2018

Cambodia: No Chinese military base on Cambodian soil, Hun Sen says

(dql) Responding to a letter of US Vice President Pence voicing concerns over an Asia Times report of a Chinese naval base under construction off the country’s southwest coast in Koh Kong province, Prime Minister Hun Sen reassured last week that Cambodia will not permit foreign military bases on its soil. [First Post]

This was echoed by government officials this weekend denouncing the report as “just psychological warfare” and the Ministry of National Defence insisting that a site inspection is not required as there is nothing matching the Asia Times report there. [Phnom Penh Post]

27 November 2018

Cambodia: The long, hard road to Khmer Rouge justice

(dql) Last weeks’ [AiR 3/11/2018] reported on the verdicts of the Extraordinary Chambers in the courts of Cambodia or “Khmer Rouge Tribunal” against leading Khmer Rouge figures Nuon Chea, second-in-command to Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, who served as head of state. For informative insights into the history of the creation of the tribunal from the perspective of Craig Etcheson, who was instrumental and devoted more than 25 years to achieving justice for the crimes committed under the Pol Pot regime, see [Asia Times].

20 November 2018

Cambodian Tribunal finds two Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of genocide

(ls) The “Khmer Rouge Tribunal” (the Extraordinary Chambers in the courts of Cambodia, ECCC) in Phnom Penh found Nuon Chea, 92, who was second-in-command to Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 87, who served as head of state, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity carried out between 1977 and 1979 and sentenced both to life imprisonment. It was the first court judgment which recognized that acts of murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation imprisonment, torture, enforced disappearances and mass rape committed against the Vietnamese and the Cham Muslim minorities constituted acts of genocide. The verdict’s historic importance has led observers to compare it with the Nuremberg judgment after the Second World War. [The Guardian]

For more than a decade, the United Nations-backed tribunal has assessed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, called hundreds of witnesses and heard in exhaustive detail how the Khmer Rouge ran its killing fields. The entire effort has cost more than $300 million. Yet the court has convicted just three senior Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity: Mr. Nuon Chea, Mr. Khieu Samphan and Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, who commanded a prison camp where at least 12,000 people were tortured and ordered to their deaths. Only five top Khmer Rouge leaders have been arrested and put on trial. But as the court’s deliberations dragged on, the other two elderly defendants died. [New York Times]

The ECCC was set up as a hybrid court, meaning every international prosecutor and judge was paired with a Cambodian counterpart. However, what was a political atmosphere encouraging cooperation when the U.N. agreement was signed in 2003 deteriorated, as democratic space has shrunk under Cambodia’s long-serving, autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected from the group when it was in power, declared that no more suspects should be prosecuted, saying, without any directly apparent justification, that such action could cause unrest. [Washington Post]

After the verdict, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said the tribunal’s work had been completed and there would not be any additional prosecutions for acts that led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people in the 1970s. The terms under which the tribunal operated limit its targets to senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime. [South China Morning Post]

16 October 2018

Cambodian Official: beatings, ‘accidents’ for migrant workers opposing Hun Sen

(jk) According to a taped conversation circulated on social media, a party official in Cambodia said that Cambodian workers taking part in protests against Prime Minister Hun Sen in other countries should be identified and beaten by gangsters or made to suffer “traffic accidents”. The reaction came after there were protest by Cambodian workers in Tokyo when PM Hun Sen was on a visit to Japan. They had destroyed a large picture of him and protested against his rule in their home country. According to the official, people would insult their leader could not be tolerated. [RFA]

9 October 2018

First conviction under new Cambodian lèse majesté law

(ls) A Cambodian court has jailed a 70-year-old barber, who was a member of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), for seven months over a violation of the country’s royal insult law, the first such conviction since the law was adopted this year. The man shared a Facebook post about King Norodom Sihamoni. [Channel News Asia]

9 October 2018

Social media in Laos: Government crackdown vs. freedom of speech on Facebook

(ls) The policing of the internet is becoming more common in Laos, as many internet and Facebook users have received invitations to meet police, or face criminal charges. However, the government crackdown on social media is unlikely to be as severe as in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where cybercrime laws and ministerial decrees are used to jail dissidents. Since the dam collapse in southern Laos, people appear to become more vocal. Back in July, Laotians turned to Facebook when news of the floods was slow to trickle out from government sources. [Al Jazeera]

2 October 2018

Cambodia: Suspended sentence for 5 human rights defenders

(jk) In recent weeks in Cambodia, a number of government critics, including Kem Sokha, leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), were freed from jail in a move that several observers saw as a means to appease foreign criticism of the recent elections.

Last week however, 5 human rights defenders, known as the ADHOC five, who all worked for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), were convicted for bribery and sentenced to a suspended jail term of five years. [Amnesty International] states that “this verdict is yet another example of Cambodian authorities’ use of the courts to harass and stifle the human rights movement. To qualify legal aid as ‘bribery’ is absurd.”

18 September 2018

New Cambodian government enters office as Kem Sokha is released from jail

(ls) Cambodia’s lawmakers voted in a new parliamentary leadership and government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which won all 125 parliamentary seats in the 31 July elections. King Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia’s head of state whose role is mainly symbolic, opened the parliamentary session, urging the country to “stand united and show strong national solidarity”. [Reuters 1] [The Straits Times]

Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, was promoted to commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, the second most powerful position in the country’s military. He is also the head of the Defence Ministry’s anti-terrorism unit and deputy chief of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, and he is seen as a possible successor to Hun Sen, who has been in power for 33 years. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Kem Sokha, leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was released from jail on bail after spending more than a year in jail on treason charges, though a court extended his detention just a few days earlier, as AiR reported last week. Sokha was arrested and accused of treason last September as part of a government-led crackdown. In recent weeks, fourteen government critics were freed from jail in a move that several observers saw as as a means to appease foreign criticism of the election. [Reuters 2]

11 September 2018

New Cambodian government enters office as Kem Sokha is released from jail

(ls) Cambodia’s lawmakers voted in a new parliamentary leadership and government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which won all 125 parliamentary seats in the 31 July elections. King Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia’s head of state whose role is mainly symbolic, opened the parliamentary session, urging the country to “stand united and show strong national solidarity”. [Reuters 1] [The Straits Times]

Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, was promoted to commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, the second most powerful position in the country’s military. He is also the head of the Defence Ministry’s anti-terrorism unit and deputy chief of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, and he is seen as a possible successor to Hun Sen, who has been in power for 33 years. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Kem Sokha, leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was released from jail on bail after spending more than a year in jail on treason charges, though a court extended his detention just a few days earlier, as AiR reported last week. Sokha was arrested and accused of treason last September as part of a government-led crackdown. In recent weeks, fourteen government critics were freed from jail in a move that several observers saw as as a means to appease foreign criticism of the election. [Reuters 2]

4 September 2018

Cambodian former opposition leader’s pretrial detention extended by six months

(jk) As reported in last week’s AiR, several Cambodian activists and journalists have been released from prison. On Tuesday, a further 14 government critics were freed, seen by many observers as a continuation of an appeasement strategy by the Cambodian government after foreign criticism of a flawed general election last month.

Notwithstanding, a court decided Thursday to extend the pretrial detention of former opposition leader Kem Sokha, to whom the appeasement strategy does not seem to extent, by another six months. Sokha has been charged with treason. A trial date has yet to be set. [South China Morning Post]

28 August 2018

Release of Cambodian political prisoners displays government’s strategic clemency

(ls) After its landslide victory in July’s general election, which was marked as flawed and unfair by Western observers, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen demonstrates strategic clemency. Several Cambodian activists and journalists have been released from prison in recent days. King Norodom Sihamoni issued the pardons on the request of the prime minister.

The released included prominent land rights activist Tep Vanny (see last week’s AiR edition) and three of her colleagues, two former Radio Free Asia reporters who had spent more than nine months behind bars on espionage charges, and an opposition lawmaker of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who was jailed in late 2016 over his criticism of Hun Sen’s government for using contested maps as a guideline to demarcating the border with Vietnam. [Radio Free Asia] [Straits Times] [South China Morning Post]

However, Kem Sokha, the former CNRP leader who is accused of treason, was denied bail by the Cambodian Supreme Court. After his arrest in September 2017, he has been held without trial for nearly a year. The abolition of the CNRP, which came close to winning the 2013 election, and which made unprecedented gains in nationwide local polls last summer, left Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party with only little opposition at the polls last month. [New York Times]

Analysts had predicted that Hun Sen could use pardons to help deflect criticism from the election. The pardons are based on political considerations and demonstrate the government’s awareness of domestic and international pressure. The no-pardon for Kem Sokha, however, also shows the limits of public clemency. Kem Sokha served as the minority leader of the National Assembly from December 2016 to January 2017 and previously as the First Vice President of the National Assembly from August 2014 to October 2015. He still enjoys widespread public support throughout Cambodia.

Meanwhile, the government’s surveillance of internet activities shows an increasingly chilling effect on public discourse. An Al Jazeera report describes how politically interested persons and activists partly revert to actual, physical meetings in order to evade state control. [Al Jazeera]

28 August 2018

Dams along the Mekong: What are the lessons learnt?

(ls) What will be the lessons learnt by last month’s deadly dam collapse in Laos? Despite an order by the Lao government to halt new dam investments, the developers of two hydropower projects move ahead with their construction plans. In response, a coalition of NGOs and community-based groups dedicated to raising public awareness about the risks associated with dams on the Mekong River announced to boycott the prior consultation process, saying that it will destroy the environment, ecosystems, and livelihoods of people in the region. [Radio Free Asia]

An in-depth report by National Geographic lays out the conflicting economic and environmental parameters. Apart from early Chinese developments, the Mekong has stayed undammed largely due to regional cooperation between the four member nations of the Mekong River Commission, which was established in 1995. Energy needs and the financial incentives of hydropower, however, caused Laos and later also Cambodia and Vietnam to launch several dam projects with widespread environmental and social implications. [National Geographic]

On the positive side, last month’s dam collapse in Laos has produced a collective effort to provide emergency relief, involving Laos’s neighbors Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, fellow ASEAN members, notably Singapore, as well as East Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea. Two commentaries by researchers of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, discuss the topic of regional responses to disasters in more detail. [RSIS 1] [RSIS 2]

21 August 2018

Cambodia: Spotlight on a prominent imprisoned human rights defender

(ls) In August 2016, Cambodian human rights defender Tep Vanny was arrested and detained after protesting against the imprisonment of a group of land rights workers known as the Adhoc 5. She was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison in February 2017 for “insulting and obstructing public officials”. An appeal was rejected later that year. The Southeast Asia Globe presents the timeline of the case which stands pars pro toto for the fate of human rights/land rights defenders and activists not only in Cambodia, but throughout numerous Southeast Asian countries. [Southeast Asia Globe]

7 August 2018

Cambodia: Militarisation of government continues and Hun Sen’s oldest son  

(jk) In the election last week, three of Cambodia’s most senior military figures ran for parliament for Hun Sen’s People’s Party. And of course, won. As quoted before in AiR, CPG Senior Research Fellow Dr. Paul Chambers stated on the growing militarisation of Cambodia’s leading party and the country’s leadership: “By fielding so many military candidates, the CPP can further tighten the nexus between itself and military leaders, giving the latter more of the political pie.” Now, with the result essentially in the bag, all three will be sworn in as parliamentarians later this month. Chambers holds that Hun Sen may well be looking to oversee a “camouflaged military autocracy” soon.

Another important military figure of particular interest is Hun Sen’s oldest son, Hun Manet. He, according to opposition figures, already controls the armed forces, Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, the military police, the secret police, the anti-terrorist unit and has made progression in his military career by filling the senior military ranks left by those who progressed into politics. By conflating military and politics more and more, Hun Sen is seen to also prepare his own succession in favour of his oldest son. To end, again with Chambers, it is possible that “after the end of Hun Sen, there would likely be a grouping of senior military with Hun Manet as a figurehead.” [SCMP]

31 July 2018

Cambodia: Results as expected in general elections

(ls) Sunday’s general elections in Cambodia produced the expected result. With the main opposition party dissolved last year, Prime Minster Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 77.5 percent of the votes, claiming all 125 parliamentary seats. Invalid votes accounted for a record-high 8.6 percent of votes cast (up from 1.6 percent in 2013). The National Election Commission reported a voter turnout of 80.49 percent (up from 69.61 percent in 2013), prompting the CCP’s central committee to declare that the “high voter turnout rate clearly illustrates the enthusiasm and political rights of the Cambodian people in strengthening a multi-party democracy”. [The Straits Times]

International observers from Western countries called the election “flawed” or a “sham”. In response to the results, the U.S. said it would consider steps, including an expansion of visa restrictions placed on some Cambodian government members. The European Union declared that the election did not represent the will of the people. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) pointed to intimidation of voters, the misuse of law and permanent changes to the country’s constitutional and legal framework. [Reuters] [The Nation]

The U.S. and the EU declined to send observers. Instead, a mix of populist and far-right party members from Europe and Asia served as monitors, including observers with ties to the UK Independence Party, Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia, a pro-government party in Belarus and India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), among others. “All we see is people dancing on the streets of Cambodia,” said one member from India’s ruling BJP. [South China Morning Post]

Observers from Malaysia, Russia, Laos, India, Thailand and Vietnam claimed the elections were free, fair and transparent. The Phnom Penh Post reported that representatives from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the International Conference of Asian Political Parties, the Asian Parliamentary Assembly and the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly also congratulated the Kingdom for carrying out democracy and freedom. [The Phnom Penh Post]

In a move to control the public opinion, the Cambodian government ordered internet service providers to block the websites of 15 news websites of independent outlets two days before and during the country’s election. Last September, the independent newspaper Cambodia Daily was shut down by the government. The Phnom Penh Post is effectively under government control since May this year. [Voice of America]

24 July 2018

Cambodia: Prince and leader of main opposition party unlikely to run in election

(jk) With the former major opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) dissolved, the Funcinpec Party is now the leading opposition party in Cambodia. The royalist party was of course involved in the request to dissolve the CNRP in the first place and is seen by many as an opposition party to Hun Sen in name only. In 2013, it only received just over 3.5% of the vote but now holds a larger number of National Assembly seats as it hugely benefitted from the CNRP’s dissolvement and the subsequent re-arrangement of seats in the assembly.

Cambodian Prince and former PM Norodom Ranariddh is the party’s candidate for PM and was supposed to run against Hun Sen, although with very little prospects. Now, it is doubtful that he will run at all after being involved in a sever car accident last month that killed his wife and left him seriously injured [The Phnom Penh Post]. After some speculation and calls for inquiries into whether or not the accident has been accidental [Voice of Asia], rumours had it that Norodom was not as seriously injured as first thought and ready to join the election campaign soon [Khmer Times].

Getting closer to the election date however, it now seems unlikely that Prince Norodom will be able to campaign or indeed run at all, and first reports are surfacing that his state is much more serious than admitted at first.

Whether he runs or not will hardly alter the outcome of the election, though some observers claim that Hun Sen would like an opposing candidate to at least carry on with the illusion there is a real democratic contest for leadership [South China Morning Post]. In the light of what has been going in Cambodia recently though, as reported here on AiR, this seems far-fetched. Hun Sen has not been overly concerned with appearing democratic or fair to his opponents.

17 July 2018

Cambodia: Developments before the July 29 elections

(ls) With the July 29 general elections in Cambodia coming up, the outlook in terms of democratic fairness and legitimacy remains bleak. Though, on paper, 20 parties will compete in the election, it would be heavily misleading to refer to the current Cambodian political system as a multiparty system. Rather, as the New York Times writes, the small parties (“fireflies”) function as a bad cover-up of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s one-party regime, in particular since the dissolution of the main opposition party. [The New York Times] Deutsche Welle has spoken with opposition politicians and journalists trying to do their job under problematic conditions. [Deutsche Welle]

That uncovering corruption is a dangerous activity in today’s Cambodia, is also the subject of a report by Mary Ann Jolley for Al Jazeera. She has talked to several members of the Cambodian community in Australia which is deeply fractured across political lines. Her report focuses on corruption allegations surrounding Cambodia’s Director General of Taxation, Vibol Kong, after the Hun Sen government targeted the country’s independent media by slapping them with tax bills in the millions. [Al Jazeera]

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, and hardly surprising, Cambodian military officers, gendarmes, and police officers are actively campaigning for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in violation of Cambodia’s law requiring political neutrality. HRW writes that senior members of the security forces have endorsed Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) at numerous public rallies and other events throughout Cambodia. [Human Rights Watch]

At the same time, the election also reflects geopolitical realities in Asia. Though the majority of Western countries, including the U.S. and the EU, refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the upcoming elections, Japan continues its silent support of the elections. Japan committed $7.5 million to the National Election Committee and pursues a less confrontational approach to the Cambodian government locally and internationally. As Darren Touch writes, the move is aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the region. After the withdrawal of U.S. and EU assistance, China lent its support in backing the upcoming election financially and diplomatically, which has caused unease in Tokyo. [The Interpreter]

Ahead of the elections, China for its part appears to have made use of clandestine cyber operations. According to a cybersecurity firm’s report, Chinese cyber spies have targeted Cambodian government institutions, opposition party members, diplomats and media, possibly to gather information ahead of elections. The cyber operations appear to have consisted mostly of gathering and downloading information, as there was no evidence of tampering. [Bloomberg]

3 July 2018

Cambodia: Hun Sen tightens grip on army and institutions, invites election observers from China and Myanmar

(ls) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son was promoted to two senior military posts as his father looks to widen his family’s influence and possibly build a political dynasty. Lieutenant General Hun Manet, was promoted to acting chief of joint staff and commander of army headquarters. He keeps his current roles as head of the Defence Ministry’s anti-terrorism unit and the deputy commander of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit. [The Straits Times]

According to a Human Rights Watch report, senior members of Cambodia’s security forces have committed human rights abuses that benefited Prime Minister Hun Sen, including a crackdown on the opposition ahead of elections next month. The 12 police and army generals accused by the report are also long-standing members of the Central Committee of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). A defense ministry spokesman said the report was unfair and lacked evidence. [Reuters 1]

According to the report, Hun Sen was able to carry out the crackdown in less than six months without any backlash, because of his control over the 12 senior military and police commanders and their subordinates. Twelve different institutions, from the supreme court, to local courts and government ministries, were used to implement the crackdown. [The Guardian]

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) announced that 50,000 observers, including some from China, Myanmar and Singapore, will monitor the general election on 29 July, which is widely expected to be a landslide victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen after the main opposition party was dissolved last year. The NEC is reviewing applications from an additional 800 foreign observers from non-governmental organizations seeking to monitor the election. [Reuters 2]

26 June 2018

Cambodian Center for Human Rights – Fair Trial Rights in Cambodia before the Court of Appeal

(jk) In a publication of the Fair Trial Rights Project by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the organisation examined the functioning of the judiciary in Cambodia with a particular focus on adherence to procedures and fair trial rights before the Court of Appeal. During the reporting period from November 2016 to October 2017, they found that while some fair trial rights are being adhered to, overall the respect for fair trials needs to be improved substantially. Among the main issues, the report cites a bias in the presumption of innocence as well as forced confessions and the right to legal representation or even presence of the defendant at a trial [CCHR Cambodia].

26 June 2018

Cambodia’s Elections and China’s defence minister’s visit

(jk) As reported over the past weeks the upcoming general elections will take place on 29 July. Hun Sen is trying to ensure victory after two close elections in 2013 and 2017 with numerous strategies such as cash pay-outs and a series of punishing measures against the opposition.

The opposition, clear-eyed about its prospects under current circumstances, has been repeatedly calling on voters to abstain from participating altogether, starting a “clean finger campaign”. The clean finger refers to the finger not dipped in ink during the voting protest. The government’s response was unsurprisingly that the campaign constitutes an obstruction of elections, which is punishable by law although voting is not mandatory in Cambodia [Channel News Asia].

China continues to support Hun Sen’s government and protect its investment in the country as it pledged more military aid as well as a Chinese naval visit next year during a five day visit by the Chinese Defence Minister. The two countries will also hold joint military exercises whilst Cambodia has put joint drills with other countries on hold [South China Morning Post]. Hun Sen’s, on his Facebook page, stated that the visit was “to implement any deals signed between the two countries, especially any deals brokered between Hun Sen and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the past, and especially to promote and deepen mutual military cooperation.”

Cambodian politician of the now dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party  and activist Mu Sochua talks in a recent interview on the state of democracy in Cambodia (hint: it’s dead!) and on Cambodian-Chinese relations [YouTube]. More on the development of the democracy in Cambodia and on many senior military officers running for political positions in the next election, CPG Senior Research Fellow Dr. Paul Chambers is quoted in a piece on growing militarisation of Cambodia’s leading party and the country’s leadership. “By fielding so many military candidates, the CPP can further tighten the nexus between itself and military leaders, giving the latter more of the political pie” [Asia Times].

17 June 2018

Cambodia: U.S. sanctions and upcoming national elections

(ls) The U.S. Treasury Department announced that it will sanction the commander of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit for carrying out “serious acts of human rights abuse against the people of Cambodia.” The bodyguard unit, an elite force under the military with thousands of troops, is involved in internal security matters and has been linked to numerous crackdowns on the opposition. Cambodia’s democracy has been in increasing trouble in recent months, with Hun Sen dissolving the main opposition party and cracking down on independent media. [The Washington Post]

The upcoming general elections will take place on 29 July. Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, is trying to ensure victory after two close elections in 2013 and 2017 with cash inducements and a series of punishing measures against the opposition. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has also provided cash payments to members who make renewed pledges of allegiance to the party. Almost 2 million of 5.3 million registered CPP members didn’t vote in the national election of 2013. [Reuters]

However, with the major opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), dissolved, there appears to be no real doubt that Hun Sen’s CPP will win the election. But a low turnout may still undermine his credibility. Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has called for a popular uprising after the national elections to force a change of government. In response, the justice minister ordered to prosecute Rainsy under the new lèse majesté laws that criminalize criticism of the Cambodian king. [UCA News]

10 June 2018

Cambodia’s troop deployments to UN peacekeeping missions

(ls) Since 2006, Cambodia has sent more than 5,000 troops on UN peacekeeping missions. The country is currently the 32nd-highest contributor whereas it is only 72nd in terms of total population. Many Cambodians see it as a way of repaying the UN peacekeepers that once helped the kingdom as it emerged from civil war and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. However, more than one hundred Cambodian peacekeepers have lost their lives since 2006. Erin Handley and Mech Dara report in the [South China Morning Post].

10 June 2018

Cambodia & Vietnam: New cyber security laws likely to limit freedom of speech

(ls) With freedom of speech shrinking in several Southeast Asian countries, the main tool of state control remains to regulate the internet. In a move seen as a further attempt to control unwanted online messages, Cambodia’s entire domestic and international Internet traffic will soon pass through a Data Management Centre (DMC) created by state-owned Telecom Cambodia. It will enable government minders to monitor and censor government critics and exert controls over Western business interests that face stiff competition from a rapidly expanding China. Freedom of speech has been under particular pressure in Cambodia with the closure of the Cambodia Daily and the purchase of the Phnom Penh Post by a Malaysian businessman with ties to Hun Sen’s government. [The Diplomat]

Under a new Vietnamese cyber security bill, which will likely come into effect on 15 June, service providers must take down offending content within 24 hours of receiving a request from the Ministry of Information and Communications or Ministry of Public Security. Further requirements prescribe that internet companies must store data locally (in Vietnam), “verify” user information, and disclose user data to authorities without the need for a court order. The law will make illegal the use of cyberspace to prepare, post, and spread information that “has the content of propaganda opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” or “offends the nation, the national flag, the national emblem, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people, and national heroes”. The bill’s measures have been summarized by [Human Rights Watch].

3 June 2018

Cambodia’s upcoming in elections

(jk) Cambodians will be asked to cast their vote at the end of next month. The upcoming election is fraught with problems, the EU and the US have withdrawn support for Cambodia over how political opposition and free news media is treated under long-time leader Hun Sen and a large number of countries has expressed concerns over how free and fair the elections will be. [The Star] With unwavering support from China and the recent developments in Malaysia however, is it likely that the PM feels he is doing everything right.

The main opposition party which still entertains some faint hopes of being reinstated before the election, is now facing the question of whether it is better or worse to boycott the whole election in the likely event that they stay banned. [The Interpreter] Former president of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy, urges Cambodians not to vote and believes that without any international recognition of the poll results, the PM will eventually lose his grip on power. [The Phnom Penh Post]

27 May 2018

Cambodia: US to put sanctions on Cambodian officials

(ls) Bipartisan legislation introduced in the US Congress to enact sanctions on Cambodian officials responsible for “undermining democracy” in the Kingdom, has drawn the criticism of Cambodian government officials and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), saying they regarded the potential action as the “violation of independence and sovereignty of Cambodia”. The legislation would freeze assets, restrict all financial transactions with the US, and deny entry into the US all senior Cambodian government, military and security officials who US President Donald Trump determines have “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia”. [The Phnom Penh Post]

20 May 2018

Cambodia: First arrest using new royal insult law

(ls) A teacher has been arrested in Cambodia for allegedly insulting the monarchy in a comment posted on Facebook, the first such arrest since the country adopted a royal insult law earlier this year. The comments he made were allegedly critical of King Norodom Sihamoni, his father, late King Norodom Sihanouk and his half-brother Prince Norodom Ranariddh over their alleged role in the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Those found guilty under the law face between one and five years in prison and a fine of between $500 and $2,500. [Reuters]

13 May 2018

Cambodia: Phnom Penh Post the latest victim in crackdown on free press

(ls) Two months before the Cambodian general election, The Phnom Penh Post, widely seen as the last bastion of a free press in Cambodia, has been sold to a Malaysian investor with ties to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen. The investor is the chief executive of a public relations firm that has worked on behalf of Hun Sen. The sale comes about seven months after the government forced The Cambodia Daily to close over allegations that it had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. The Phnom Penh Post itself had owed $3.9 million in taxes, but that bill was settled as part of the sale. [The New York Times]

In less than a year, Cambodia has gone from having the freest press in the region to being one of the most repressive and dangerous places to be a journalist. In the 2018 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index published last month, Cambodia dropped 10 places from 132 to 142, and the country’s independent press was described as being “in ruins”. [The Guardian]

In August 2017, the government ordered the closure of 32 radio frequencies across 20 Cambodian provinces that had broadcast programs critical of the government, including Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA). RFA closed its office in Phnom Penh in September, after 20 years of operations in Cambodia. [Human Rights Watch]

Meanwhile, a Cambodian court on Thursday upheld the insurrection convictions of 11 members and supporters of the country’s now dissolved main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The 11 members were jailed for terms ranging from seven to 20 years in 2014, after they forcibly tried to reopen the country’s only designated protest venue, “Freedom Park”, in July that year. [Reuters]

6 May 2018

Cambodia: Preparations for a deeply flawed election in July

(ls) Cambodia began registering political parties for the July 29 general election that is almost certain to extend the 33-year-old rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party. The National Election Committee (NEC) said Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was the first to register along with the little known, pro-government Cambodian Youth Party (CYP). Registration will end on May 14. [Reuters]

Meanwhile, another opposition party announced on Thursday that it will boycott the general election, saying it will not be free and fair. The Candlelight Party – previously the Sam Rainsy Party and a founding member of the now banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – said it will not take part in election. The CNRP, previously Cambodia’s main opposition party, was dissolved by a court order late last year as sought by Hun Sen. 118 former top CNRP members, including 55 former members of parliament, were banned from politics for five years. [Bangkok Post]

29 April 2018

Thailand/Cambodia/Laos: Cooperation to track down political enemies

(ls) Thai immigration police have detained Sam Serey, head of the Cambodian opposition group Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF). A Cambodian official said the government was in discussion with Thailand on the man’s extradition. In 2016, a Cambodian court sentenced Sam Serey in absentia to nine years in prison for plotting an attack. This month, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Sam Serey and his group of plotting attacks in Cambodia, calling him a “traitor”. [Reuters]

In March, Thailand and Cambodia had agreed on cooperation in searching for “fugitives”. Concerns have formed about an authoritarian alliance of sort emerging between the ruling junta in Thailand led by Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen as they seek to suppress dissent and consolidate their authority at home, as Prashanth Parameswaran describes in [The Diplomat].

At the same time, the government of Laos has assured Thailand that Thai political fugitives in Laos will be kept under strict surveillance to prevent them from engaging in lèse majesté activities. The Chief-of-staff of the Lao People’s Armed Forces, on a visit to Thailand, added that “We [Thai and Laos people] are like siblings. (…) we have to help, love and respect each other. We also have to help preserve our traditional rituals and uphold Buddhism so it lasts forever.” [Bangkok Post]

22 April 2018

Facebook in SEA

(jk) News on Facebook this past week have much focused on its CEO’s testimony before the US congress. A lot is happening in Southeast Asia as well:

Authorities in Indonesia recently threatened to ban Facebook unless the company gets a handle on privacy and fake news. The government may be worried about fake accusations about President Joko Widodo’s alleged communist sympathies or collusion with China ahead of next year’s elections [Bloomberg]. Much like Zuckerberg in the US Congress, Facebook employees in Indonesia had to face tough questions from lawmakers [The Straits Times 1].

In the Philippines, where Facebook has appointed two online news platforms (Rappler, which continues to operate pending an appeal over its shutdown, and VERA Files) for a joint project to monitor and stop the spreading of fake news, its choice has been criticized by the government, alleging the selected news organisations are biased against President Duterte [The Straits Times 2]. The government also said it is investigating the social media firm over reports information from more than a million users in the Philippines was breached by British data firm Cambridge Analytica [Voice of America].

In Cambodia, Facebook is in the middle of a lawsuit (filed in California in February) by former leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy alleging that Prime Minister Hun Sen has used the social network to deceive Cambodia’s electorate as part of a broader campaign to destroy the political opposition and free media [Reuters].

Moreover, in Myanmar, Facebook was accused of facilitating the incitement of hatred and spreading hate speech during the genocide. A recent UN Fact-Finding Mission concluded that social media has played a “determining role” in the crisis [TechCrunch].

15 April 2018

Cambodia´s leader Hun Sen – its about legacy and charisma not democracy

(hg) Veteran Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn provides an interesting (Southeast) Asian account on Prime Minister Hun Sen as a political leader.

Kavi claims that concern about his “legacy” is essentially driving Hun Sen, that his action “is not about power and wealth – as the international community thinks – but about how Hun Sen will be remembered by Cambodians”. They, the Cambodians, on the other hand, respond with regard to what might be translated as “charisma”, mian borami. The Khmer term designates “extraordinary people with supernatural powers to change things” and the one “who has earned respect, recognition and authority from years of work” with regard to the community.

Kavi concludes: “In the end, whatever Hun Sen has done, for good or for worse, it is aimed at increasing his borami. […] The main source of his power and legitimacy is borami, not, as the West thinks, liberal democracy.” [Myanmar Times]

Taking such a cultural account on politics is interesting for a number of reasons. First, Kavi´s observation points at a sort of cultural pattern to make sense of politics that extend far beyond the Cambodian case. The Thai language for instance uses a very similar term for largely the same concept (barami). Second, it might, however, be asked how ubiquitous such a culturally determined concept explaining political behavior of both the governing and the governed in Cambodia actually is. How much is it coming along with competing notions? After all, there may be different conceptions to make sense of politics that are competing which other even within one and the same person or organization. Important to ask would also the question, in how far competing conceptions of power can be authentically represented by one and the same voice with regard to different audiences. Practically interesting is especially in how far the cultural pattern described by Kavi are persisting on the side of the or some oppositional forces as well. Lastly, taking a perspective on the epistemic importance of concepts such as borami by means of empirical observation does not necessarily imply a normative claim that the substantial integrity of democratic processes would represent a misperception of political realities. As a matter of fact, electoral democracy is the normatively set mechanism to determine who is in power in Cambodia, irrespective in which currency power, legitimacy and representation are traded in the constitutionally defined political game. In any way, a perspective on cultural pattern of power offers highly important insight in the actualities of Cambodian politics and beyond. [Myanmar Times]

15 April 2018

Cambodia´s upcoming elections, Japan´s role and the China factor

(hg) The Cambodian elections scheduled for July 29 will be run without the oppositional Cambodia National Rescue Party of self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. The party was banned November 2017 in an incraesingly repressive climate bringing the country closer to what could be called a de-facto one-party state run by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the world´s longest reigning Prime Minister, and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Sam Rainsy, on tour in Tokyo, has urged Japan, one of his nation’s biggest donors, to use its leverage to ensure that the elections will be democratic. While Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has urged Cambodia to hold free and fair elections when visiting PM Hun Sen, he was not touching on the repressive, undemocratic environment in the kingdom.

In February, Tokyo announced an $7.6 million grant to Cambodia to support the elections  including Japanese-made ballot boxes and other election-related equipment, adding to the 12,000 ballot boxes that Japan donated for the 1998 elections. [Japan Today] Last week, Japan issued also a $90 million loan to fund electricity and other economic projects.

The Japanese support for both the government and the elections has caused mixed reactions. While the US and EU are highly critical with some countries leveling sanctions against Cambodia’s Hun Sen government, Japan is seen as keeping quiet on the increasing repression and instead throwing money behind a farce of elections. [The Diplomat]

Major reason for the Japanese stance is an ever advancing Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region with Cambodia being China´s closest ally in ASEAN.

15 April 2018

Cambodia and Vietnam following Malaysian example to fight ‘fake news’?

(hg) The Cambodian government is looking to draft a “fake news” law, after similar legislation has been introduced in Malaysia (see above). The announcement followed a meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc during which the Vietnamese PM expressed concerns about ‘fake news’ coverage suggesting both countries should exchange information to cooperate on countering inaccurate news. [The Phnom Penh Post 1]
In Cambodian context, such a ‘fake news’ act would complement an array  of repressive means already taken to stifle media freedom and civil society opposition. [Deutsche Welle]

After one of the countries newspapers, the Cambodia Daily, had to close due to a $ 6.3 million tax bill, more than a dozen radio stations having been closed for allegedly violating their contractual obligations and Radio Free Asia having ceased in-country operations over tax and registration issues, media freedom in general is massively reduced already. [The Phnom Penh Post 1]

Now, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has again delayed a defamation trial against the Deputy Publisher of the closed Cambodia Daily. Background of the trial is a defamation case filed by the General Department of Taxation for alleging that the tax body had leaked a confidential document and that the $ 6.3 million tax bill was politically motivated.  [The Phnom Penh Post 2]

1 April 2018

Cambodia: Opposition remains dysfunctional ahead of elections

(ls) Former Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha is to remain in jail while awaiting his trial after the Appeal Court on Tuesday upheld the decision of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to extend his pre-trial detention by an additional six months. Sokha, ex-leader of the now defunct Cambodia’s National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in September 2017 and later charged with treason. [Channel News Asia]

The dissolution of the CNRP will not be discussed in meetings between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Taro Kono next week. Japan has continued to support the upcoming national elections even as other democratic countries have pulled back assistance after the forced dissolution of the CNRP. CPG Senior Research Fellow Paul Chambers stated that, currently, any pressure from Japan regarding democracy and human rights in Cambodia is unlikely, suspecting that Japan might still hope that the political situation could be improved between now and the July election. [The Phnom Penh Post]

In a piece for the New Mandala, Michael Sullivan analyzes the influence of international actors on Cambodian politics since the 1990s. He argues that in 1997–98 Hun Sen and his regime were not held accountable for a bloody coup and that the international community legitimized flawed parliamentary elections, the outcome of which continues to create political instability and state sponsored violence today. [New Mandala]

25 March 2018

Cambodia: UN End of Mission statement, no improvement of Human Rights situation

(jk) The UN expert on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Professor Rhona Smith, has unsurprisingly expressed her serious concerns regarding restrictions on the media, freedom of expression and political participation ahead of the July national elections [UN End of Mission Statement].

After the closure of the newspaper Cambodia Daily, about which we reported in September last year, another major English newspaper has now been hit with a major tax bill. The reputable Phnom Penh Post is allegedly facing closure and might share the same fate as the Cambodia Daily did if they default on the payment as reported by some media outlets [UCA]. The paper states a contrasting view however, claiming the tax audit was “routine” and that the paper does not face closure [The Phnom Penh Post 1].

In Australia, where Cambodian PM Hun Sen recently visited for the Australia-ASEAN summit, the PM was met by an increasingly critical Cambodian diaspora, led by a Cambodian-born Australian lawmaker who is not shy about his views on the state of democracy and human rights in Cambodia [The New York Times].

A recent issue also picked up by the UN Special Rapporteur was the shooting by security forces at protesters on 8 March over a land dispute with a rubber plantation in Snuol district, Kratie province [The Phnom Penh Post 2]. The alleged human rights abuse here was investigated by the state but the police quickly ended the investigation clearing the security personnel [The Phnom Penh Post 3]. An independent investigation into the incident is unlikely and what exactly happened and how is difficult to ascertain. Whilst the official investigation found the allegations that security personnel had killed demonstrators to be untrue, Voice of Asia journalists who have interviewed villagers involved in the incident claim that a security force comprised of 150 police, soldiers and military police opened fire on hundreds of protesters, killing at least three. Furthermore, their investigation scrutinizes a link between a company involved in the incident and the family of PM Hun Sen [Voice of America].

25 March 2018

Dragon Gold: Cambodia – PRC joint military exercise

(jk) After the first instalment in 2016, the 2nd joint military drill between the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the  Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), “Golden Dragon 2018”, begun this week in Cambodia. The two-week military exercise is being conducted under the theme “Counter-Terrorism and Humanitarian Works”. Whilst Cambodia continues to deepen its relationship with China, US joint military drills have been postponed indefinitely last year, claiming it was too busy holding elections (!) [Reuters].

4 March 2018

Laos: Border dispute with Cambodia

(ek) Cambodia undertook live-fire weapons training sessions south of the border with Laos in the contested area OÁlay, in Stung Treng. The military exercise may be a demonstration of force prior to the upcoming elections in Cambodia. A spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Defense stressed, however, that there are no bilateral tensions between the two nations [The Phnom Penh Post].

25 February 2018

Cambodia: Pretty prisons for wealthy inmates

(ls) Cambodia’s chronically overcrowded prisons soon are to find relief by “outsourcing” the correctional facilities of wealthy inmates. According to recent plans, inmates could pay to use the facilities, which would have much higher standards than typical Cambodian prison cells, where numerous inmates often share a single latrine and ailments like nutritional deficiencies, abnormal physical weakness, diarrhea and scabies are common. Critics say, allowing prisoners with disposable incomes to live more comfortable lives was concerning and would make existing informal economic divides in the prison population official. [The Phnom Penh Post]

25 February 2018

Cambodia: Germany ends preferential visa treatment for Hun Sen’s family and high-ranking officials

(ek) With the end of the preferred visa grant, Germany responds to the fact that the Cambodian government has banned its political opposition and depressed media und NGOs. The German government made clear that the dismantling of democracy and human rights in Cambodia cannot remain without consequences. On February 26, the European Union will decide on potential actions regarding Cambodia. In December, the EU had suspended funding for Cambodia’s 2018 general election because it did not view an election without a main opposition party as legitimate [The Phnom Penh Post].

18 February 2018

Cambodia: Parliament adopts lèse-majesté law

(ls) Cambodia’s parliament on Wednesday unanimously adopted a law that forbids insulting the monarchy. Those found guilty would face between one and five years in prison and a fine of between $500 and $2,500. Rights groups said they feared the new law could be used to target critics of the government. Prosecutions under a similar Thai law have risen since the 2014 coup and critics of the junta say it has been used as a means to silence dissent. [Reuters]

4 February 2018

Cambodia: Draft legislation on access to public information unveiled

(ls) A proposed access-to-information law more than a decade in the making was unveiled to the public in Phnom Penh. The Ministry of Information and Unesco led the drafting of the law, which enshrines the public’s right to access information held by Cambodia’s public institutions. However, critics argue that the draft law declares as confidential too many categories of information and that it gives the “officer in charge of information” the responsibility to define and classify confidential information. As with many other pieces of legislation, enforcement is likely to be a major challenge. [The Phnom Penh Post]

26 January 2018

Cambodia: Is the opposition splitting?

(ls) Cambodia’s detained opposition party leader Kem Sokha has declined to join a new movement, the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), founded by prominent exiles (see last week’s AiR edition). Kem Sokha still con-siders that he is still with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which received more than 3 million votes in recent elections, but which was banned by a court ruling last year. It appears that the opposition is beginning to split, which would benefit incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen in the upcoming elections this year. [South China Morning Post]

19 January 2018

Cambodia: How will Hun Sen respond to new opposition movement?

(ls) The former leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy, has an-nounced the formation of a new movement, the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM). Currently, CNRM members include Mr. Rainsy, his wife Saumura Tioulong, and two former deputy presidents of the CNRP. Rainsy said that the movement would be organized as a secret network. Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng announced that the government will investigate whether the movement is legal. [Khmer Times]

Rainsy also called for a postponement of the July election, at which Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to easily ex-tend his 33 years in power. “This would avoid both violence and Cambodia becoming a pariah state,” he added. [Reuters] In an apparent reference to the protests foreshadowed by the newly announced CNRM, also Prime Minis-ter Hun Sen issued a warning that there could be no elections in a “chaotic country”. [The Phnom Penh Post]

5 January 2018

China-Cambodia relations: Beijing support upcoming general elections

Ahead of Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to Phnom Penh next week, China’s foreign minister voiced confidence that the July’s general elections in Cambodia will be free and assured electoral aid. The United States and the European had withdrew their support following the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November at the government’s request [Reuters].

29 December 2017

Cambodia: Lèse-majesté?

(jk) Cambodia’s government is considering im-plementing lèse-majesté laws similar to the law in Thailand and a number of other countries, which criminalises criticism of the monarchy. The discussion comes at a difficult time for free speech and human rights in Cambodia with PM Hun Sen tightening his grip on power and sti-fling his opposition.

22 December 2017

Cambodia: Pre-election skirmishes

After the Supreme Court has dissolved the only opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), at the request of the government, on grounds that it was plotting to seize power, the United States and European Union announced they would suspend funding for the 2018 elections. Continuing his anti-Western line ahead of the 2018 elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen mockingly encouraged the United States and European Union to freeze the assets of Cambodian leaders abroad in response to his government’s crackdown on the opposition and civil society. For a neat description of the opposition’s increasingly precarious position see.
While China, Cambodia’s largest aid donor, has went on to lend its support to the Hun Sen government, the government has shut down 330 print media outlets supposedly “inactive” print media with 388 ‘functioning newspapers’ remaining.
The government’s stance received discursive support from a seminar of the Cambodia’s Royal Academy following the mentioned party dissolution whose main message was the claim that US democracy would not suit Cambodia.

22 December 2017

China-Cambodia relations: Chinese-language schools pushing soft power

With Chinese – Cambodian ties getting steadily closer the market for Mandarin language education is significantly expanding with the support of local branch of the Confucius Institute (CI) with its network of language schools in more than 140 countries. The local CI works in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Cambodia but has also supported the set – up of a “Mandarin Center” at the Ministry of Defence in July reflecting the Cambodian dependency from Chinese weapon deliveries. Requests for Chinese language education have however, also come from at least seven other ministries reflecting a shift to a singular position of Chinese language education in the country as avenues to spread Chinese soft power [Reuters].

22 December 2017

US bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam War and its legal justification

The article reveals how the USA legally justified the bombing of Cambodia as a third party in the Vietnam War by an extension of the term self-defense which would become increasingly important in justifying US American intervention abroad afterward [New York Times].

15 December 2017

Muted UN statement on human rights in Cambodia versus realities of opposition

A recent statement by the UN Special Rappor-teur on human rights in Cambodia mentions some of the concerning developments of late, but fails to really call out the seriously deterio-rating human rights situation in the country. An interview with an active opposition-in-exile poli-tician of Cambodia’s National Rescue Party speaks more to the concerns of many democrati-cally inclined observers.

15 December 2017

EU in SEA: EU to re-establish political ties with the Thailand, scraps funding for elections in Cambodia

The European Council has agreed to gradually resume all political and economic engagement with Thailand. It reiterated its call for “restoration of democratic process” and “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” in a press release after the decision came early this week and cited as a major factor in the decision the Thai authorities’ statement that elections will be held at the end of next year. The EU still upholds its “yellow card” it has issued when it alleged that Thailand is not doing enough to regulate illegal fishing practices but both sides see a major opportunity now to resume talks on the free trade agreement that have been put on hold after the coup in 2014 [Council of the EU] [Bangkok Post]. With regards to Cambodia, the EU has decided to cancel all funding for the upcoming general election in 2018 as it was decided that under the current circumstances, a credible election cannot be expected [Reuters].

1 December 2017

Democracy clock set back to zero

Roughly 25 years after the United Nations took over the administration of Cambodia – organizing the country’s first democratic elections in 1993 – the ruling party has succeeded in what many analysts and international observers have called the complete dismantling of the country’s democracy. Now, historians and analysts say the attempt to shoehorn democracy into Cambodia was always naïve. Also, former opposition Deputy President Mu Sochua pointed out that donors let the ruling party get away with too much for too long. Ben Paviour argues that the powerplay in Cambodia has its roots in the Cold War Era, referring to the 1980s, when U.S.-backed forces tried to root out the Vietnamese-installed regime Hun Sen eventually led. Paviour points out that his skepticism of U.S. motives continued after his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) converted to nominal democracy and capitalism in the early 1990s. David Hutt points out that the CNRP’s success or failure ought not to have become synonymous with democratic hopes in Cambodia. He draws a comparison with the events in Myanmar to demonstrate what happens when democratic aspirations become solely concentrated in the fate of one party: that party might get into power and show itself to be not-so-democratic after all. In the meantime, Prime Minister Hun Sen seeks more aid and investment from China during a visit this week. Hun Sen attends a special summit held by the Communist Party on a theme espoused by Chinese President Xi Jinping on “turning the world for the better and without interference”.

24 November 2017

A defiant Hun Sen and a dissolved CNRP

If there still was one electoral threat to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the upcoming elections scheduled for July 2018, this threat has now disappeared. After a long list of changes made to electoral and other laws recently in order to stifle the opposition, the Supreme Court, presided over by a judge who himself is a senior party member of the CPP, has ruled to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and ban its senior officials from political activity for five years. Earlier this year, former CNRP leader Kem Sokha was accused of plotting with “foreign powers” to overthrow the government. The US has now announced it will cut its funding for the election after the Supreme Court decision, which amid growing investment from China, let the PM unimpressed. Hun Sen in the meantime, goes back to common election strategies of his party, handing out cash envelopes to potential voters and promising popular reforms. Two Cambodian journalists working for US-supported Radio Free Asia were charged with espionage, exemplifying the ever-worsening trends in the country.

17 November 2017

Opposition party dissolved by Supreme Court

Cambodia’s Supreme Court has ordered the country’s main opposition party be dissolved. The government accused the Cambodia National Rescue Party of involvement in a plot to topple the government. The dissolution may result in over 100 politicians getting banned from office for five years. The verdict is seen as the latest move by Prime Minister Hun Sen to remove threats to his power ahead of elections next year [The Telegraph].

17 November 2017

Cambodia: China helps with internet governance as online controls tighten

Cambodia and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on e-commerce cooperation on Friday, by which China will provide technical advice to help boost e-commerce in the kingdom. According to an official statement released by the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce, the agreement is an important element of the government’s “rectangular strategy” and a component of China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative [Khmer Times]. Meanwhile, the Cambodian government has stepped up efforts to curtail online freedom of expression and political opposition. A pending cybercrime law is raising concerns about legal limits on what users are allowed to post on the internet, as charges of sedition and defamation are already used to silence dissenters [Voice of America].

10 November 2017

Cambodia: China helps with internet governance as online controls tighten

Cambodia and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on e-commerce cooperation on Friday, by which China will provide technical advice to help boost e-commerce in the kingdom. According to an official statement released by the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce, the agreement is an important element of the government’s “rectangular strategy” and a component of China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative [Khmer Times]. Meanwhile, the Cambodian government has stepped up efforts to curtail online freedom of expression and political opposition. A pending cybercrime law is raising concerns about legal limits on what users are allowed to post on the internet, as charges of sedition and defamation are already used to silence dissenters [Voice of America].

3 November 2017

Political clampdown continues, but with possible side effects for allied China

A top Cambodian court rejected an appeal to free opposition leader Kem Sokha on Tuesday saying his release could be a public risk as the threat of dissolution looms over his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Kem Sokha was arrested in September on charges of treason in what his supporters say is a politi-cally-motivated case. It comes amid a crack-down on critics of authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who could face the biggest electoral challenge of his political career in a general elec-tion next year. However, the continued clamp-down may also threaten the interests of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s closes ally, China. Devel-opment aid cuts by the US and the EU, Cambo-dia’s largest trading partners, and possible eco-nomic sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation could also harm Chinese export-oriented firms operating in Cambodia.

28 October 2017

Ex-deputy PM flees after threat

A former Deputy PM of the royalist Funcinpec has fled the country after Prime Minister Hun Sen has threatened to file lawsuits against him for disparaging the King and accusing the government of bribing [The Phnom Penh Post].

28 October 2017

Cambodia facing mixed reaction from the international community

Amid Cambodia’s democratic crisis, Singapore’s foreign minister has visited Phnom Penh this week seeking to improve bilateral (economic) ties [Khmer Times], while  some western countries reconsider their ties with Cambodia, such as Sweden [Channel News], Australia [ABC], or the US [Radio Free Asia].

20 October 2017

Return of opposition chief could herald more active politics

Bangladesh’s opposition leader, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, returned home on Wednesday to a rapturous welcome from her supporters after more than three months away for medical treatment in Britain [Channel NewsAsia].

20 October 2017

What went wrong with Cambodia’s opposition party

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) took years to form but weeks to fully unravel. Ben Paviour takes note of the current crackdowns on the party and draws attention to possible strategic errors on the part of the CNRP, such as the July 2014 compromise that ended the opposition’s months-long boycott of the National Assembly, internal divisions around the party’s two leaders as well as a lack of effective defense against claims of Western conspiracy [The Diplomat].

13 October 2017

More law amendments in expectation of CNRP dissolution

After changing the law on political parties twice this year, the ruling CPP is amending further political laws ahead of the general elections next year. This time, it appears to “weaken” its position however, as the amendments will change the allocation of opposite CNRP’s seats after a dissolution of the party which is currently discussed to the detriment of the ruling CPP. Opposition and human rights watchers allege ulterior motives. Reuters reports on the worsening tensions between the Cambodian PM and the US amid the strain that is put on Cambodia’s opposition leaders and MPs, half of which have fled the country.

6 October 2017

Human rights violations under scrutiny by UN Human Rights Council

In passing its biannual resolution on Cambodia, the UN Human Rights Council took the addi-tional step of authorizing the preparation of a special report on the country. In the light of re-cent crackdowns on the opposition and the me-dia, with half of the opposition Cambodia Na-tional Rescue Party’s sitting lawmakers currently overseas [The Phnom Penh Post], the UN Spe-cial Rapporteur on Cambodia informed the HRC that efforts to undermine democratic institutions have reached an unprecedented level in Cambo-dia [The Online Citizen]. Also, at the UN Hu-man Rights Council, a group of 39 countries has raised “serious concern” regarding the human rights situation in the Philippines amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In a joint state-ment released in Geneva, a group of European nations, Australia, the US and the UK empha-sized that the Philippines needs to investigate all killings, combat a climate of impunity, and pro-tect human rights defenders [Asian Correspondent]. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines has offered to protect police officers who want to come forward and testify about their participation in President Rodigo Duterte’s war on drugs. The protection offer could escalate an emerging clash between the church and the government [The New York Times].

6 October 2017

Rising contenders in Asia: India and China

Within Asia the rising powers India and China are competing for dominance manifest in efforts  to assert own’s position vis-a-vis the other across the region and beyond. Military exercises in Djibouti (South China Morning Post I) and a research vessel’s month-long presence in the Pacific Ocean southeast of US territory Guam express China’s ambitions as global player once more. While the US considers the research expedition as directed towards the future build-up of a military base on the island country of Micronesia (South China Morning Post II), India is concerned about the conduct of the first live fire exercise at the Djibouti base. Besides increasing her presence in the region around the Indian Ocean, China continues to advance its influence in Southeast Asia, where Laos and Cambodia are China’s closest allies. However, their respective relation with China differs.  While Laos appears to be savvy in navigating the tricky diplomatic waters and faces less risk of “over-reliance” on China, whereas the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said his country is China’s “most trustworthy friend” (Myanmar Times). On the other side, two Indian Navy warships made a goodwill visit to the Philippines this week. The visit, a manifestation of PM Modi’s “Act East Policy”, was boost for bilateral ties and part of commemorations under way marking 25 years of partnership between India and ASEAN. The Indian ships sailed from to visit Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Brunei, and Russia (The Diplomat). Meanwhile, U.S. defence secretary Jim Mattis said that there was a strategic convergence, a “generational opportunity” between the two largest democracies in the world to work together, based on shared interests of peace, prosperity and stability in the region (Times of India I). Furthermore, during the six days long visit of India’s Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Naval Staff to Vietnam, both countries expressed their strong determination for intensify their strategic partnership and security cooperation (Vietnam News). This meeting comes at a time in which Vietnam is stepping up efforts to build up a robust self-defense on the country’s maritime features in the South China Sea (China Policy Institute: Analysis) while India tries to position itself a regional power to counter not only China’s strategic influence in Southeast Asia (Times of India II), but also its soft power and cultural influence (New York Times).

29 September 2017

Opposition leader remains in jail

The Cambodian Appeal Court upheld a lower court decision not to free a Cambodian opposi-tion leader or to grant him bail. The Cambodian National Rescue Party leader currently awaits trial on treason charges but no date for the trial has been set with elections coming up next year.

29 September 2017

China and Southeast Asia ever closer: Different intensity and levels of cooperation – similar trend?

Cambodia: Amidst a global power struggle between two major powers in a multipolar world, Cambodia is hedging its bet but is leaning closer and closer to China. China is “backing up” Cambodian elites in power, invests heavily in the country and will further benefit from a “declining west” (Khmer Times). PRC investments are seen to meet the country’s needs more than other international banks and organisations and political realities in Cambodia today favour an embrace of China (ISEAS).

Malaysia: Malaysia-China ties have been deeping in recent years, they include arms-sales, investment, information-sharing and other diplomatic engagements. While some MPs in Malyasia are critical of this, the contrast between the treatment PM Najib experiences in China compared to his rather informal visit to the White House recently, is striking (Free Malaysia Today). Kuala Lumpur has also just deported 29 Uighurs who will now face prosecution in China (The Strait Times).

Singapore: As ties between Singapore and China seem to be warming up again and with the Singaporean PM’s visit to China last week, some analysts see the end or at least suspension of the military training arrangement between Singapore and Taiwan called “Starlight Project”. The decade old cooperation has long been bothering China but is important to Singapore which has only very limited airspace (SCMP 1). Other analysts point to remaining differences likely to dominate the PRC-SP relationship, in particular the South China Sea (SCMP 2).

22 September 2017

With close ties between Beijing and Phnom Penh, the EU and US search for leverage

Having spent billions of dollars promoting a sta-ble, nominally democratic Cambodia, the United States and the European Union are currently witnessing how their investments become in-creasingly futile: The opposition leader was ar-rested, major newspapers and NGOs were forced to stop their operations. David Boyle discusses possible scenarios how the EU and the US might regain influence in the country which, under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has estab-lished close ties with China.

15 September 2017

Does China announce support for crackdown on opposition?

After Cambodia has cracked down on the opposition ahead of next year’s elections on various fronts including the recent arrest of the leader of the parliamentary opposition, the international reaction is interestingly split with the US, EU, Australia, and UN condemning it while a Chinese representative, the vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, akin to an upper house in the Westminster system, reportedly announced support.

7 September 2017

Ongoing government crackdown on opposi-tion and free press amidst growing tensions with US

The leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party was formally charged with treason on Tuesday, after being accused by the country’s authoritar-ian government of plotting to overthrow its lead-ers with the backing of the United States. The charge comes amid a wider crackdown on dis-sent ahead of parliamentary elections next year (New York Times). After imminent threats of closure and legal action over a disputed $6.3 million tax bill, the English-language newspaper Cambodia Daily ceased operations on Monday.

7 September 2017

Tribunal prosecutors at odds over genocide case

The international co-prosecution at the Khmer Rouge tribunal has argued that the former Khmer Rouge official Ao An (“Ta An”) should be tried for genocide and other crimes against humanity whereas the Cambodian prosecutor is against an indictment in order to expedite the current case against the deadly regime’s second-in-command Nuon Chea and its head of state Khieu Samphan.

31 August 2017

Land eviction on land of Hun Sen’s daughter

More than 400 families have been ordered to remove their homes built on land owned by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter on last Sun-day with a deadline of next Tuesday to comply.

24 August 2017

Targeting NGOs and the opposition

Government-aligned news media published a raft of anonymous letters and articles criticizing US founded NGOs of supporting misinformation to create uncertainty and confusion. Some months ago, government officials responded to a leaked training for the major oppositional party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), by accusing the supporting NGOs to assist the opposition intending to overthrow the govern-ment. Against the backdrop of the recent ‘Law on Associations and NGOs’, some of the coun-try´s most renowned NGO have come under pressure including summons by the tax admini-stration [The Phnom Penh Post]. Meanwhile, King Norodom Si-hamoni left the country on Sunday just as he was expected to be called to sign some amendments to the ‘Law on Political Parties’ after the CNRP has asked the king to avoid the endorsement while the legislation is under review by the gov-ernment-stacked Constitutional Council. Bidding literally farewell to the King at the airport, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other core members of the ever governing Cambodian People’s Party main-tained that the king was not making a political statement by leaving. The legislative revisions bar political parties from consorting with anyone convicted of crimes like CNRP party leader Sam Rainsy [Cambodia Daily]. The constitutional role of the King in Cambodian constitutional politics, who has called upon voters “not (to) be concerned about oppression, threats or intimidation by any-body” in the run-up to the June communal elec-tions, is addressed in an instructive background article by High Privy Councillor to the King Son Soubert [CPG Online].

18 August 2017

Political Rights Under Pressure

Two articles shedding light on the current situa-tion of human rights in Cambodia. The first link contains a research report conducted by human rights NGOs that reveals that, despite a basically solid legal framework which meets international standards, infringements of fundamental rights continue to occur in Cambodia, due to misappli-cation of law and recent legislation containing restrictions on the exercise of rights and free-doms. The second link leads to a ruling of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in which analyst Kim Sokhas been sentenced to 18 months for defamation of Hun Sen and stirring up public disorder. Rights groups view this decision as a further testimony to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s usage of the judiciary to intimidate political op-ponents and silence critical voices to secure his re-election next year.

11 August 2017

Ministry Says Most NGOs Ignore Govern-ment Requirements

According to information of the Cambodian Ministry of Interior, only 4% of domestic NGOs have provided banking details to which they are obliged under the country’s Law on Associations and NGOS.

11 August 2017

Cambodia Orders Expulsion of Christian Charity Fighting Sex Trafficking After CNN Report

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Shen has or-dered the shut down of Agabe International Mis-sions (AIM), an American Christian anti-trafficking NGO, over a CNN report about AIM’s rescue of girls sold by their mothers to sex-traffickers.

11 August 2017

Portrait of a grass-root newcomer in Cambodian politics

Portrait of one of Cambodia´s most prominent political and right activists Thep Nanny who cur-rently is still arrested for “insulting a public offi-cial” after she has lost her appeal.

4 August 2017

The governing CPP’s Election Strategy in Minister´s account – Cash, Power, Beatings

Far from an official government issued state-ment, but striking nonetheless, one of Hun Sen’s cabinet members was allegedly citing the PM on his election strategy for 2018. According to the minister, Cambodian authorities will not react lightly to potential protests surrounding the elec-tions.

27 July 2017

Cambodia: Party Law Sails Through; SRP Mulls Name Change

The constitutional council has ruled a number of amendments to the law on the political parties in Cambodia constitutional after the opposition had claimed it wasn’t and lamented that it is directed at the main opposition party and its de facto leader in exile Sam Rainsy.

21 July 2017

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal: Mission Accomplished?

With the Cambodian Khmer Rouge Tribunal coming to an end, it is time to take stock of what has been achieved. The tribunal has been strongly criticised since its onset but proponents have highlighted key achievements.

18 July 2017

Democracy in Cambodia: Party Law Changes by Government Party

The space for opposition in Cambodia keeps get-ting tighter as the National Assembly passes more changes to the Law on Political Parties. Contradictory to CPP claims, the rules and regu-lations are perceived to be directed at the CNRP and their former leader in exile Sam Rainsy.

16 July 2017

CPP Passes More Party Law Changes in Assembly

The space for opposition in Cambodia keeps get-ting tighter as the National Assembly passes more changes to the Law on Political Parties. Contradictory to CPP claims, the rules and regu-lations are perceived to be directed at the CNRP and their former leader in exile Sam Rainsy [Cambodia Daily].

7 July 2017

BOC extends yuan presence in Cambodia, but greenback is king

China remains Cambodia’s largest donor country but the Yuan has a long way to go to replace the USD as the currency of choice in the country. Trade volume still lags behind the volume of that with the US and the EU and dollarization remains high at over 80%.

30 June 2017

Khmer Rouge Trial, Perhaps the Last, Nears End in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge tribunal that began proceedings in 2006, concludes its hearings in genocide trial after another lengthy trial comes to an end. Finding a verdict is still months away however. Cost, efficacy and prosecutions of the tribunal have long been a controversial topic in Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

30 June 2017

Cambodia ruling party big winner in local elections

Sunday saw the official local election results released in Cambodia where the ruling party of PM Hun Sen expectedly emerged as the strongest party.