Wed, 12 April 2017
Ananth Baliga and Chhay Channyda
The Foreign Affairs Ministry yesterday issued a scathing and wide-ranging rebuttal to longstanding accusations of human rights violations and political persecution, calling these allegations a campaign of misinformation led by foreign governments and institutions, particularly the United States, bent on regime change.
The report, titled To Tell the Truth and released late on Monday night, points directly at Washington, its local embassy, NGOs and the opposition for mounting a sustained campaign fuelled by the “distortion of facts, lies and amplification of minor issues” to discredit government achievements over the years.
“Cambodia has been submerged, months after months, years after years, by reports from opposition media, biased NGOs and misinformed institutions, which twisted historical facts and events in an attempt to portray a negative image of Cambodia and to lay the blame on the government,” the report reads.
The extraordinary diplomatic outburst is the most strident in a series of critiques of the US, NGOs and media which analysts see as a combination of a strategic move towards China and also setting the tone for contentious local and national elections.
It accuses the US of funding regime change and using civil society to foment change in Ukraine and Honduras and says Cambodia will draw the line on its sovereignty. It even starts with a quote from libertarian former US congressman Ron Paul: “It is not democracy to send in billions of dollars to push regime change overseas. It is not democracy to send in the NGOs to rewrite laws.”
The report also criticises local media, including The Phnom Penh Post, as being biased but still permitted to operate freely.
While laying out what it characterised as the government’s successes in reversing the country’s course after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s, the report proceeds to call out the US and Western governments for supporting the ultra-Maoist regime and their reluctance to acknowledge the Vietnamese-led government that replaced it – a government that evolved into the present-day Cambodian People’s Party.
On this point, it makes special note of the UN’s Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith’s statement last year that the “time to blame the troubles of last century for the situation today is surely over”.
“Ms. Smith’s reckless statement demonstrates the sheer contempt towards Cambodia’s reality inasmuch the indifference of many international officials who prefer to judge and condemn rather than trying to understand and help,” the report reads.
In response, Smith yesterday said she was cognisant of the genocide and war crimes inflicted on the country but was also highlighting the international responsibilities the country had years later.
“My comment reflects the fact that twenty-first century Cambodia has accepted a raft of international human rights treaties and now has the resources to address them. My role concerns contemporary human rights in Cambodia,” she said, via email.
The ministry’s report goes on to defend the government’s record on land issues – citing the 4.3 million land titles handed out as of last year – and the controversial Law on NGOs (LANGO), which was formalised after 20 years of “debates and dialogue”. However, it also lambasts the US Embassy and NGOs it funded for rejecting the final draft.
Sam Chankea, spokesman for rights group Adhoc, said the report was more excuse than truth, adding that the government was blind to the rights abuses documented over the years.
As for LANGO, he said the law was specifically being used to curtail the activities of groups rather than enable them. “They said they uphold the rule of law and protect human rights, but the laws are being approved to only hurt the weak people,” he said.
Turning to the opposition, the report says the government’s recent changes to the Law on Political Parties – which Prime Minister Hun Sen had implied were meant to target the CNRP – had precedence in other regional and Western countries.
It takes particular umbrage at what it characterises as Sam Rainsy’s use of double speak, alleging that the former opposition leader espouses democratic values to an international audience, while using a more divisive and racial rhetoric with the Cambodian people.
The CNRP has in the past used anti-Vietnam rhetoric, which some have called outright race-baiting in a country with troubled ties with its eastern neighbour.
“I have been sometimes falsely and unfairly accused of having a racist inclination towards the Vietnamese people only because of my firmly defending the legitimate interests of the Cambodian people against a neighbouring country that does not respect them on many occasions,” Rainsy said in response.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, meanwhile, said the statement was meant to set the record straight with international governments and groups, and to push them to look beyond what he maintained were media-generated falsehoods in order to understand “Cambodia’s definition of democracy”.
“Our democracy depends on the constitution and rule of law,” he said. “We don’t need to choose any other international standards.”
Political commentator Cham Bunthet said the government seemed to have taken a page out of US President Donald Trump’s playbook by ignoring the facts and painting itself as the victim of a conspiracy.
“They seem to be telling the international community, ‘Hey, you are looking at us with the wrong perspective’,” he said.
Nonetheless, governments and the CNRP would have to find a way to work productively with the government, otherwise, given the Cambodian government’s mindset, they could “do whatever to stay in power”.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson called the Foreign Ministry’s latest “screed” a “piece of art”, and a classic CPP strategy to pre-emptively strike at donors and diplomats looking to chastise the government for its increased repression.
“Anyone who has been watching closely for even a short period of time will not be fooled.”