Repression in Cambodia

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

As the 2018 elections are coming up in Colombia, the critics of President Hun Sen, have accused him of being a dictator, who knows best how to silence his opponents, with calculated use of the military, judiciary, media and police.


Since last two months, Hun Sen’s ruling party, Cambodian Peoples Party, has forced the closure of several newspapers such as The Cambodia Daily, some Khmer language based radio stations and ousting of volunteers of an American government NGO called Peace Corps. These harsh tactics reflect a political character of an experienced taskmaster reigning Cambodia for many years.

Although the poverty rate has fallen dramatically (from 53% in 2004 to 20.5% in 2011), due to increased rice production, strong garment, footwear, construction sectors and good access of farmers to markets, many poor people who have escaped poverty remain vulnerable to economic shocks. 

These World Bank figures, examined by its poverty analysts, suggest volatility of the economy related to upcoming elections. According to them, the country has to address its high-energy costs and struggling connectivity. Cambodia is currently also facing stiff competition from Myanmar’s low labour costs and Vietnam’s Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).

According to Shanghai Composite Index, Cambodia’s election ranks 69th out of 73 countries worldwide. At the present, Cambodia has also seen the rise of its rival political parties. Cambodia National Rescue Party has demanded more accountability and actions against election rigging. The party claims to have high people support because many Cambodians have felt to be represented by a repressive legislation that has done innumerable crackdowns and locked down dozens of political opponents including Kem Sokha, leader of CNRP.

Human rights activists have been targeted under the guise of laws related to national security. Some activists have commented about a chance of a civil war in the country, if the ruling party loses. In fact, during 2013-14, large-scale protests in Phnom Penh had already happened against the ruling government.

Cambodian Peoples Party has held power in the country since 1979, since the fall of Khmer Rouge, which was led by Pol Pot. US-backed Khmer Rouge (even for a UN seat) as a true representative of Cambodians, to weaken the influence of Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Southeast Asia.

Under Carter, US urged all anti-socialist nations to sever ties with Cambodia and Vietnam. It banned US humanitarian agencies to send aid to Cambodia. The US also directed Thailand to set up an international black arms market for Khmer Rouge as a military aid.

China even sent troops to erstwhile North Vietnam for a two-week war as a form of resentment and sent Khmer Rouge its 15,000 military advisors. 

Post Khmer Rouge rule, China has abandoned several conferences to abandon conflict in Cambodia and currently enjoys lukewarm relations.

Historically, Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot and supported by erstwhile North Vietnam had emptied every town and city and put every Cambodian under twelve-hour force labour. Men worked with inadequate rations consisting of rice soups. In Ba Chuc massacre, an entire Vietnamese village of over 3000 people was massacred (that prompted Vietnam’s War against Khmer Rouge). Many workers who showed signs of an education were sent to the gallows in its 150 execution centres, including the notorious Toul Sleng prison.

As a major portion of farmed crops was exported by the regime, about two million died of famine and overwork. In an invasion of Southern Vietnam, about 30,000 were killed by the Khmer Rouge, until their downfall by the Vietnamese Armed Forces and Kampuchean United Front For National Salvation.

Many Cambodians living in the countryside have quit the farming business, not because they want to work in industrial sectors, but because they have been robbed of their land and given no concessions. Almost a million farmers have been affected by regime’s land grabbing policies and subsidies to private companies. Illegal logging is also undergoing in Cambodian forests.

About ten cents of every dollar has gone into corruption. A new labour law has restricted union activity and the right to organise assemblies. In fact, less than 5% of workers are unionised. The right to strike has also been limited to a complex bureaucratic requirement. There are also barriers to existing trade unions. The ruling party has made no plans for a minimum wage. In fact, it has filed legal suits against several union federations.

Workers in factories have complained of high heat as a major concern. As 40C has been an average working condition, heat strokes and fainting has been common. Flooding has increased the rate of electrocution in dormitories and factories. The government’s action plan against these major problems has been out of any concern. Infact, political callousness has exhibited itself in these administrative depravities.

There is also a widespread usage of abusive short-term contracts that are limited to less than six months. Add to that, low wages cannot lift them out of debt. These upsetting conditions have made many Cambodians look for work outside in countries such as Thailand. All these developments over the course of time indicate that the political repression in Cambodia has been rampant.


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