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Democracy is a Casualty in Cambodia

January 11, 2018

In a recent blog, we closed with an image of Elizabeth Becker, former war correspondent, author and expert on modern Cambodian history testifying before the war crimes tribunal of the Khmer Rouge in 2015. The image was published in The Cambodia Daily which was forced to close its doors in September of last year. The spirit of Elizabeth Becker is clearly reflected in an image from her days as a war correspondent shown below.

The courage and tenacity for her to testify in the war crimes tribunal was forged by the total lack of humanity of the Khmer Rouge which she witnessed. Her closest personal experience was when a colleague, Malcom Caldwell, was murdered in their shared government accommodation in Phnom Penh in 1978 following a two week visit to Cambodia at the invitation of Pol Pot. Her assumption was that someone in the Khmer Rouge opposed the visit which prompted the assassination. She was spared though she was confronted by one of the assassins.

A voice for the freedom of press, The Cambodia Daily, was founded in 1993 by Bernard Krisher, a former correspondent for Newsweek who befriended King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. King Sihanouk, who was overthrown by the CIA-backed Lon Nol coup in 1970, referred to the newspaper "as his CIA as it was the only way he knew what was really happening in his own country."

In the patchwork history of Cambodia's history, Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, defected from the Khmer Rouge to join the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and drive the Khmer Rouge into the jungle in 1978. He finally emerged as the Prime Minister of Cambodia and has held that position since 1985 having survived several contested elections to solidify his position and ultimately eliminate all political opposition several months ago.

As Hun Sen's political control of Cambodia was put into jeopardy by claims of corruption and reported vast amounts of wealth accumulated by his family, he consolidated his position by eliminating the opposition political parties. On September 3, 2017, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party Deputy President Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason for allegedly conspiring with the United States to topple the government. He could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Accordingly, the Cambodia National Rescue Party was forced to close its doors.

Further, the last edition of The Cambodia Daily featured the arrest of Kem Sokha which was a big story from the last gasp of the free press of the country.

Maybe, what goes around comes around. The CIA set the precedent by overthrowing the Sihanouk regime because it provided sanctuary to the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese invasion freed the Cambodians of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge though the U.S. continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge given its disparate history with Vietnam. The U.S. pushed Hun Sen to follow a democratic path but when that became a threat to the Hun Sen regime, an overthrow of the opposition and the democratic principle did not elicit any reaction from Washington. Maybe dictatorships are the current model.

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