To improve democracy, start in the right place

[Sent to the Khmer Times on May 20, 2019.]

Thank you for your May 20 article on the Cambodian government response to the US government’s interference into Cambodia’s internal affairs.

While I agree with the statements rejecting US interference, the Cambodian government has been objecting to US meddling for a long time, and the US government seems totally incapable of understanding the principles involved, no matter how often they are explained.

I would therefore like to suggest that the Cambodian government try other methods, which might awaken the US government to the fact that it is not really the world judge of everything. (I am not confident about this, because US governments over many years have shown an ability to sleep through almost anything, up to and including the end of the world.)

So, I think that the Cambodian government should propose the following measures to improve US democracy:

  • The US judicial system should stop imprisoning Chelsea Manning, who revealed numerous war crimes and other crimes committed by the US military and representatives of the US government. The US should instead nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.

  • The US government should drop its request to extradite from Britain (so that they can assassinate him) Julian Assange, the director of Wikileaks, which distributed Chelsea Manning’s disclosures.

  • The US government should prevent the use of the death penalty anywhere within its territory.

  • The US government should pass and actually enforce laws banning all forms of racial discrimination.

  • The US government or judiciary should block the various anti-woman compulsory pregnancy laws being passed by a number of state legislatures, most of which have been gerrymandered to ensure a reactionary majority.

  • The US federal government should abolish those gerrymanders and others, like the Electoral College, which allowed Donald Trump to take office despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. That includes the Senate system, which gives a small minority of US voters a veto on most legislation.

There are many more changes needed to bring about democracy in the United States, but those above would be a good beginning and would allow the people of the US to start having some control over their lives, and therefore being able to change other things that need changing.

Furthermore, while the US people were proposing and implementing those and further changes, the government might find itself too busy to be telling the rest of the world how to behave.

Allen Myers

Phnom Penh

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And where did she go for lunch?

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post on May 3. Not published.]

Sometimes a newspaper headline can reveal much more than a journalist or editor realises. A case in point is the major page 1 headline on the May 2 Post: “UN’s Smith joins capital Labour Day celebrations”.

I have no quarrel with the May Day events being considered the most newsworthy event of the previous day. But the implication of the wording is that the attendance of Rhona Smith was more important than the numbers of workers and their supporters who gathered, or the content of their petitions, or the response of the government. (And the headline accurately reflected the article.)

Of course, it is not news that many people from developed Western countries arrive in countries such as Cambodia with the attitude that what local people say or do doesn’t matter – or doesn’t even exist – unless it is ratified by someone from the West, especially if that someone occupies an official position in the UN or a Western government.

It is saddening, however, to see that that attitude survives in at least some parts of the Post.

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Coast guarding

[Sent to the Khmer Times on 26 March 2019. Not published.]

I suppose I should not have been surprised to read in Tuesday’s Khmer Times that a US Coast Guard ship was one of two US military vessels sailing between China and Taiwan in order, as a US military statement put it, to show “US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

Maybe it’s a problem that I tend to take words literally. I expect a “coast guard” to be a military or other body that guards a country’s coast. So I expect the US Coast Guard to guard United States coasts.

Silly me! There’s nothing in the phrase to say that a country’s coast guard has to guard its own coasts. What’s wrong with the US Coast Guard guarding the coasts of China, or North Korea, or Iran, or any other country that has a coast?

That might make landlocked countries such as Switzerland or Kazakhstan or Chad feel secure, but they shouldn’t forget that the US also has a National Guard. And, as with coasts, the nation to be guarded by the US doesn’t have to be the United States. It’s true that, only last year, President Trump used the National Guard to guard the US from a hostile invasion by refugee children, but in the recent past, a number of US National Guard units have also been used to guard Iraq against the activities of its citizens.

Guarding is a serious business, and it can happen anywhere. Especially in places not on good terms with Washington.

But, in the spirit of guarding, shouldn’t other countries share some of the burden of guarding the world’s coasts (of which there are quite a lot)? While the US is guarding China’s coasts, why not have another country guard US coasts?

For example, in the waters between Florida and Cuba, or between Florida and the Bahamas – which are wider than the distance between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan – wouldn’t it be helpful of China to send some military vessels to demonstrate a commitment to a free and open Caribbean-Atlantic?

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Newspeak updated

Dear Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post,

While I would be happy to have the following brought to a wider audience, it is not really for publication (I will post it on my blog). It is intended for your subeditors and writers, especially the Khmers among them, who have, not surprisingly, adopted a grotesque linguistic construction that has become very common in the English-language press internationally.

A clear illustration of this construction is from the introduction to the 22 March Khmer Times interview with Lon Rith. This states that “the Khmer Rouge genocide … saw nearly two million Cambodians die”.

Instead of stating the simple truth – that the KR genocide killed nearly two million Cambodians – the “saw” construction turns genocide into something almost harmless: the Khmer Rouge genocide was watching when two millions Cambodians died. Maybe the genocide can be criticised for not calling the world’s attention to this disaster that it saw? And what could have been the cause of all those deaths that the KR genocide witnessed? Does “genocide” still mean something?

As noted, Khmer journalists did not invent this weasel wording. They simply imitate the already widespread usage in the English-language news media. Basically, the construction works like this:

Suppose that A has done X to B during the course of C. An objective news report of this would state: “A did X to B during C.” For example: “Fifty centimetres of rain (A) fell on (did X) to the region (B) during the storm (C).” There seems to be no reason to change that to “C saw A do X to B”, “The storm saw 50 centimetres of rain fall on the region”.

But suppose the sentence concerns a question that might lead readers to assign political or moral blame to one or more of the people or organisations mentioned. For example: “The United States killed thousands of Cambodians by bombing during the 1970s.”

If the publication that has to refer to this fact has many readers who might be irritated by a reference to US war crimes, the sentence can be made more gentle: “The 1970s saw thousands of Cambodians killed by US bombs.” In a reworking like this, the agent that did the bombing disappears almost completely; it’s true that the bombs are “US bombs”, but maybe the bomber, whoever it may be, bought them on the black market.

George Orwell’s brilliant novel 1984 foresaw authoritarian political manipulation through the imposition of a vocabulary, Newspeak, in which it was impossible to express heretical ideas. Orwell was right, but mistaken on the details. Our rulers and those who serve them have found a method that is easier and quicker, especially since it is adopted and used even when there is no immediately obvious political reason to do so.

“Proper” language will see political heresies banished from the media.

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Corruption and perceptions

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times on 1 February 2019. Published by the Post on 4 February.]

Reporting on Transparency International’s release of its annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has, unfortunately, paid little attention to either the details of the index or some larger questions about its validity.

Transparency International’s website does not yet carry many details about how the 2018 CPI was compiled, but the method was presumably not greatly different from 2017. For that year, TI says that the CPI was “based on 13 sources that collect the assessment of experts and business executives on some specific corrupt behaviour in the public sector (i.e. bribery, diversion of public funds, use of public office for private gain, nepotism in the civil service and state capture)”.

At least four aspects deserve attention:

1. As “Perception” indicates, the index is based on the opinions of those TI chooses to consult, not on objective criteria. Yes, it would be more difficult to question farmers in Kampot or coal miners in West Virginia, but are their opinions any less relevant, and might they not be different from those of the people actually asked?

2. It is not clear how TI or its sources determine who is an “expert” on corruption. Presumably, it is not, for TI, corrupt officials or their corrupters, although who would know more about the subject?

And business executives are hardly a reliable source of cross-cultural information: an executive in one country may regard as “normal business” the same behaviour that a similar executive in another country considers to be corruption. Furthermore, are business executives whose companies bribe regulators likely to give an honest opinion on the level of corruption around them?

3. The CPI relates only to corruption “in the public sector”. In many countries, public sector corruption is minor compared to private sector corruption, some of which was exposed after the 2008 global financial crisis and which includes things like stock market manipulation, falsification of financial documents, conspiracy to control interest rates, bribery of financial news media, manipulation or falsification of political parties’ internal procedures and much else. All of the five “specific corrupt behaviours” occur also in the private sector, if we substitute “private” for “public”, “corporate bureaucracy” for “civil service” and “corporate” for “state”.

It would also be helpful to know where TI draws the line between the public and private sectors. If a (private) company or its owners give a million dollars to a private individual expecting something in return, and this individual is later elected to public office, is that “private” or “public” sector corruption?

4. The specific behaviour of “state capture” is also interesting. According to Wikipedia, “The classical definition of state capture refers to the way formal procedures (such as laws and social norms) and government bureaucracy are manipulated by private individuals and firms so as to influence state policies and laws in their favour. State capture seeks to influence the formation of laws to protect and promote influential private interests.”

The problem here is that this evades the question of when a state was captured. After the passage of time, “state capture” begins to look like “normality” or “the way things should be”. A state that was captured a century or more ago appears – at least to people like TI – as no longer captive and therefore not corrupt.

But does anyone seriously doubt that the laws and bureaucracy of countries like the United States, Britain, Australia etc. serve to “promote influential private interests” of a fairly well-defined layer? Conversely, if a government and its laws are new, for example, they are more likely to look like “state capture”.


Five years ago, responding to TI’s 2013 CPI, Dr Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics pointed out that TI’s map of world corruption shows North America, Western Europe and Australia and New Zealand as “clean”, while the rest of the world is “corrupt”. Unsurprisingly, nothing has changed in that regard.


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Sanctions and the EU

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times on 20 January 2019. Published by the Post on 22 January.]

Has the European Union just shot itself in the foot?

The EU has been threatening to sanction Cambodia, for not conducting its elections as it was told to do, by withdrawing tariff exemptions under the Everything But Arms program.

But then, on January 16, the European Commission announced it was going to start imposing tariffs on Cambodian rice.

The reason? Nothing to do with elections, sanctions, arms or the like. No: it was only to protect European rice “producers” (in reality, probably not the producers but the big agribusinesses that exploit the real producers).

The move was in response to “a significant increase” of Cambodian (and Myanmar) rice imports into Europe. One might have thought that the aim of tariff exemptions was to allow an increase of imports of the relevant commodity. Clearly, such a view is naive.

The real aim is to portray the EU as magnanimously trying to help less developed countries – on the condition that doing so not impinge on the interests of anyone in Europe who matters. Your products can be tariff-free unless an EU competitor complains.

The European Commission statement says that the new import tax will be gradually reduced over three years. That will happen unless the EC changes its mind. For example, if the tax hasn’t sufficiently reduced Cambodian and Myanmar imports by then, it could be extended, or even increased, just as arbitrarily as the way in which it has just been imposed. Western “aid” tends to be like that.

So the message from the EU is this: Don’t do as you’re told and you’ll lose our “assistance”. Or do as you’re told and you’ll still lose our “assistance” when we feel like it.

It rather reduces the effectiveness of the sanctions threat, doesn’t it?

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