I have a new post up at Asia Times that ventures beyond my usual bailiwick. It’s about Cambodia, and it’s keyed on the murder of Dr. Kem Ley, which created an uproar in Cambodian civil society: Cambodian PM Hun Sen Paints a bull’s-eye on his own back.
I’m interested in Cambodia because of its role as pro-China spoiler in ASEAN. The U.S. and Japan would, I think, like to see supremo Hun Sen go away pronto and not lord it over Cambodia for another decade plus, which is his stated ambition.
Vietnamese attitudes are perhaps more ambivalent. Hun Sen came to power on the back of the Vietnamese army that expelled the Khmer Rouge and, before Hun Sen lurched China-ward in 2012, he was seen as a useful bulwark against the amazingly deep anti-Vietnamese trend in Cambodian society and politics.
However, I see that Carlyle Thayer, who is something of a leading indicator of Vietnamese opinion, had delivered some dark mutterings on the occasion of the recent unpleasantness at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that maybe it was time for Hun Sen to sleep with the fishes:
“The current rift shows that Cambodia is the odd country out, [interested] in pursuing the narrow interests of the Hun Sen regime at the expense of the common interests of the littoral and maritime states,” Thayer said.
Protip: When you become the “XX regime” don’t expect good things.
If there’s going to be a color revolution that brings Cambodia into the ranks of the pro-Western China containment alliance (or at least quasi-adversarial frontline state like Burma), Dr. Kem Ley probably would have played a key role…if he hadn’t been shot to death on July 10 in Phnom Penh.
Dr. Ley presented himself as an “analyzer” and “researcher” not an “activist” or “politician”. He did preside over the founding of a grass roots independent political party but immediately distanced himself from its operations.
I suspect Ley was trying to “color revolution between the lines” as I put it in my AT article, claim the “safe space” of “apolitical civil society” and gain the protection of Cambodian laws and international opinion as much as possible while enabling the formation of a popular force.
It appears not to have worked, as his murder is widely seen as a political assassination orchestrated by the Hun Sen government.
The whole NGO model of virtuous subversion is taking a hit around the world, with anti-NGO laws getting passed in China, India, Russia, Israel and I expect some other venues.
That’s a rebuke, I think, to Hillary Clinton and Anne-Marie Slaughter and their idea of “smart power”. Weaponizing NGOs as political instruments was a clever way to stress targeted regimes without accountability and, guess what, walk away from compromised assets without accountability.
That’s a shame, because NGOs were playing major and positive roles in shaky societies, particularly post-conflict and post-socialist nations. My closest experience is Mongolia which, post-democracy, looked like it had been hit like a truck. NGOs poured in to reconstruct the society and did a lot of good things, along with bringing along a considerable amount of baggage, especially in the Christian prostelyzation line. Cambodia, needing all the help it can get to rebuild its human capital after the devastation of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime, has been a major focus of NGO attentions.
The PRC, of course, has not signed on to have its society remade by Western do-gooders, and relationships with NGOs have become increasingly fraught, for good reason.
An interesting report by Edward Wong in the New York Times caught up with Peter Dahlin, the head of a legal rights NGO whose detention by the PRC was the subject of much high-profile handwringing in the Western press.
He was released and deported by the PRC and ended up in Thailand. He told Wong:
[His interrogators] showed him a document about the organization he had started in China to promote access to legal services, complete with descriptions of employees, associates and grant recipients. But it was not written by the officers. It appeared to have been prepared by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is largely funded by the United States Congress.
The internal report laid out how Mr. Dahlin’s small organization had received financing from the nonprofit for the last five years, and it discussed his program in detail. It seemed to have been meant for circulation only among the nonprofit’s top directors.
“I realized it must have come straight from N.E.D. itself somehow,” Mr. Dahlin said in an interview, adding that he had never seen the document before.
Don’t recall the US government or the NED speaking up for Dahlin while he was incarcerated. The Swedish government was called upon to do the heavy diplomatic lifting.
Maybe that’s because the NED is seen as an instrument of US destabilization and regime change ambitions layered on top of democracy promotion and the kiss of death for NGOs trying to operate beyond US protection in hostile states.
The most generous interpretation of Mr. Dahlin’s plight is that he had no idea that the NED was funding his organization (which had swelled to “15-20” mostly part-time employees and kept the equivalent of US$26,000 in cash in a safe) through deniable cutouts, or he was simply too polite to ask.
To sum up, if you’re doing NGO work that has a whiff of political significance in the PRC, you’ve got a bullseye on your back, thanks to the US government’s propensity for meddling.
I don’t know if Dr. Ley was involved, wittingly or unwittingly, in US-government related NGO shenanigans. But he was an inhabitant of NGO-land, and his work drew from, complemented, and perhaps informed the NGO engagement with Cambodia.
In particular, I’m thinking of this Asia Society report, Democracy in Cambodia–2014, whose recommendations essentially dovetail with Ley’s initiative to set up a grass roots political movement that, while bringing the goodness of true representative government to Cambodia’s people, would be beyond the controlling and intimidating reach of the Hun Sen government and state-run media.
The NGO that might have created fatal difficulties for Dr. Ley was Global Witness, a George Soros operation that attacks the illicit resource exploitation that underpins less-than-democratic regimes. Their most famous cause is blood diamonds, but they also do jade, tropical hardwoods, copper, etc.
In early July Global Witness strayed somewhat from their core brief to deliver an expose of the vast business holdings of the Hun Sen family in Cambodia, titled Hostile Takeover. Global Witness declared that the report an exercise in “data journalism”, its conclusions derived from combing publicly available Cambodian corporate records. This presentation parallels the spiked Bloomberg investigation into Xi Jinping’s family holdings using records in Hong Kong, something that the PRC, now Cambodia’s ally, might have shared with Hun Sen.
I’m a touch skeptical about these claims and wonder if these heroic exercises in financial forensics are backfilling to cover up a dossier dump and protect local informants. Never know, I guess.
However, I did think it rather rash of Global Witness to announce that it had relied on information from “confidential sources” to fill out its report, especially in the matter of Hun Sen’s black sheep nephew Hun To, an alleged drug dealer.
Anyway, Hun Sen appeared on VOA and RFA and, I’m assuming, a variety of Khmer outlets to discuss the Global Witness report. He distanced himself from any knowledge of the intentions and objectives of the authors, while expressing appreciation for the report and its accuracy.
Actually, Global Witness report looks like, as I characterized it in Asia Times, “a regime change hitpiece” intended to weaken Hun Sen politically and provide a justification for a cutoff of foreign investment and government and and NGO funding to the Cambodian government, and Hun Sen might have decided to send a murderous, intimidating signal to local activists in response.
A few days later, on July 10, after being tracked for a couple days by some goons with walkie-talkies, Ley was shot to death at his favorite coffee spot in Phnom Penh.
I found the media willing to impute the killing to Hun Sen, which is after all pretty plausible, though it’s backfired politically and the killing might have been some rogue operation not ordered by Hun Sen. But leaving that aside, journos are apparently loath to connect the dots between the Global Witness report and Ley’s death.
It might not be correct to speculate that Ley had a hand in the preparation of the report, but the idea that it might have been a factor in Ley’s death is apparently one of those questions that didn’t deserve raising.
Circumspect journalism? Unwillingness to embarrass Big George and one of his flagship benefactions by implying it cavalierly made a run at Hun Sen from the safety of London while giving insufficient mind to possibility of local retaliation? Queasiness at highlighting potential synergies between NGO work and domestic political agendas?
Anyway, Dr. Ley was murdered, and the intensity of the public furor surrounding his death illustrates the vitality of social and political model he was advancing, in which an increasingly informed and critical public employ their own social media tools to slip beyond the grasp of an old-school strongman.
The cellphoning and social-media-ing began with Dr. Ley’s murder. Graphic photos of his body popped up on social media, supporters and sympathizers flocked to the café/gas station to gape, grieve, rage, and try to protect the crime scene against government interference. The affair quickly assumed the form of a protest, as the crowd refused to let Ley’s body be loaded into a vehicle belonging to an ambulance service controlled by Hun Sen’s wife. Instead, it was placed into an SUV and escorted by Buddhist monks to the Wat Chas pagoda.
A wealth of footage immediately made its way onto social media concerning Ley’s murder and other events of July 10, showing the ambulance being sent off and the remarkably efficient organization of an ad hoc funeral procession complete with memorial pictures.
Dr. Ley lay in state for more than a week at the pagoda, to the undisguised anxiety of the Cambodia government.
After negotiations with the government to keep politics out of the event and control the route, huge crowds lined the streets of Phnom Penh as a parade transported his body, draped in a Cambodian flag and enclosed in a glass coffin, to the burial ground in his own province on July 26.
Government TV gave the procession a couple minutes on the news, but social media has hours of footage.
Ley’s death provides an interesting insight into Buddhist funerary practices, and hints that Cambodia’s Buddhists are pulling themselves together after the devastation of the Khmer Rouge years and starting to claim a central social and political role, something their Therevada Buddhist colleagues in Thailand and Burma assert with considerable ferocity.
As to the US position on this, the State Department issued a statement of condolence and called on the Cambodian government to conduct a full investigation. The US Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Tom Malinowski, appeared at the viewing of Ley’s body and provided a sentiment for the guest book. His trip was announced on July 10, so it’s plausible that it was scheduled after news of Ley’s death was received.
As I discuss in Asia Times, the outpouring of popular indignation surrounding Ley’s death might accelerate any plans the US might have for getting Hun Sen out of the president’s chair. Hun Sen’s main political rival, San Rainsy, is a popular but rather problematic pol whose political platform is based on virulent anti-Vietnam sentiment. That’s not exactly flavor of the month in Washington and Japan, who see Vietnam as a valued asset in the PRC-containment network.
But a burgeoning social and political resistance movement kickstarted by Ley’s death might change US calculations. As I wrote at AT, “it looks like Hun Sen painted a bull’s eye on his own back. But it will take a year or two to find out if his opponents can hit the mark.”