By Jennifer Wells | Business Columnist
Tues., May 24, 2016
Travelling through Cambodia recently, I saw tinder-dry fields baking in 40-degree heat, evidence of the country’s severe drought, now defined as the worst in a half-century.
Rice planting has been delayed and it’s not uncommon to see boats run aground in the country’s famous lake, the Tonle Sap. By April’s end the Phnom Penh Post was reporting water shortages in 18 of the country’s 25 provinces, from Siem Reap to Kampot.
Yet on Tuesday the king’s royal oxen showed their favour for dishes of rice over grass at a ceremony held at the temple ruins of Angkor Wat, leading the royal palace’s astrologer to predict a bountiful harvest.
And so the story of Cambodia starts to assume the shape of a parable and the visitor attempts to square what is evident to the naked eye with pronouncements from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
There are multiple business angles here. At the start of June the International Labor Organization holds its 105th international conference, in Geneva, an opportunity to address the application of the country’s new and contentious labour law. In April the ILO reflected on “key concerns and gaps” with the law through the drafting process. “These are mainly related to insufficient protection of the right of all workers and employers to freely set up organizations of their own choosing,” the ILO said in a release, “and of the right of these organizations to decide on their internal matters without interference, as part of Cambodia’s obligations under ratified ILO conventions.”
In mid-May, a group of independent UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, called for the government to cease its crackdown on human rights defenders, parliamentarians, UN personnel and civil society at large. “The escalation of criminal charges, questioning, court proceedings and public statements against them must cease,” the group of rights experts said. “We urge the Cambodian authorities to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society, which play a critical role in holding the Government to account and bringing benefits of human rights to the whole of Cambodia society.”
The particulars are bizarre. On May 2 a group of human rights activists from ADHOC, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, were arrested. Four of those were charged with bribery and sent to prison in Phnom Penh. The charges centre on the alleged bribery of a hairdresser, her silence apparently bought to deny an affair with Kem Sokha, the acting vice-president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. The CNRP is the prime opposition to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. The circumstances, say the UN experts, “generally suggest that this entire episode is nothing more than a politically-motivated persecution of civil society.”
So-called “Black Monday” protests, named for the black T-shirts worn by human rights defenders protesting the arrests, resulted in the detention of a further eight activists. The wearing of the T-shirts was unauthorized, the government says. Offering clarity, the country’s defence minister offered: “If you want to protest, it is OK. But you have to ask for permission. Ask for permission, and it will either be allowed or not allowed.”
International NGOs face an equally tough go of it. Nine months ago, the CPP passed the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations. International NGOs have to register with the Ministry of the Interior and sign a memorandum of understanding before undertaking any activities. According to the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, the memorandum requires INGOs “to carry out its humanitarian projects in other locations or provincial cities upon due approval of relevant governmental authorities based on government priorities.” Article 18 requires INGOs to work “in close consultation with counterpart government institutions and local authorities to implement the approved projects or programs.”
NGOs and INGOS are required to refrain from activity in support of any political party.
Censure has extended to well-known political analyst Ou Virak, who, in seeking the truth behind the Kem Sokha affair, has been slammed with a defamation suit by the ruling party. The government is stoking “an atmosphere of fear,” Virak said of the suit.
Many observers credit next year’s local elections, and the national elections to follow in 2018, as the motivating factors behind the sweeping and aggressive moves on the part of Hun Sen and the CPP. That should make for an interesting dialogue at the international labour conference in June, as delegates discuss the global supply chain and the repressive political regime that rules Cambodia’s part in it.