Cambodian history vs. zombie facts

[Published by the Khmer Times on 4 July 2017.]

Over the years, I have almost grown accustomed to the distortions and misrepresentations of recent Cambodian history that appear in some of the English-language press.

Some of these falsities, I think of as “zombie facts”. No matter how many times they are shot down, they are soon revived by another writer, who assumes that their earlier appearance in print means they must be true (especially if they appeared in the paper she or he is working for). Many of these zombie facts revolve around Cambodia’s elections, but the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the UNTAC period and various episodes of the civil war also contribute a fair share.

A week before the 20th anniversary of the 1997 fighting between CPP and Funcinpec, the Cambodia Daily decided to get in early with its anniversary article, in its June 30 issue. If the Daily had stopped at merely re-inspiring the zombies, I would not have opened my computer. But the article adds new “information” that requires at least one attempt to bury it before it’s too late.

But first, two brief examples of long-lived zombies. The first is the idea that the 1991 Paris Agreement and UNTAC “put an end to the war” between the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge and its allies. Zombie facts can stagger on even when contradicted in the same article in which they appear. “[P]ut an end to the war” occurs on the first page of the Daily’s five-page article, while the third page acknowledges that the KR “had broken the treaty, regained their camps along the Thai border and resumed war”.

The second example from the same article tells us that Funcinpec was “overwhelmingly elected” in the 1993 UNTAC-run election. Funcinpec came first, with 45.5% of the total vote and 58 out of 120 seats, but that gives new meaning to “overwhelmingly” (especially when numerous CPP complaints, including that hundreds of ballot boxes had arrived for counting with their seals broken, were never addressed).

The article then says that “the CPP refused to step down”, and so Prince Sihanouk arranged a coalition between Funcinpec and the CPP. Anyone who questions that bit of accepted journalism will be accused of refusing to believe in the walking dead. But Ranariddh and Hun Sen had already agreed before the election that they would form a coalition if neither of their parties won a majority.* Furthermore, the rules for adopting the new constitution virtually guaranteed a coalition, since a two-thirds majority was required to approve the constitution.

The new element in the Daily article is the claim by Peter Bartu, an academic at the University of California, Berkeley, that one of “three key issues that really upset Hun Sen” immediately prior to the CPP -Funcinpec fighting was that Ranariddh had “unilaterally”, without consulting him, written to the UN secretary-general “ask[ing] for a Khmer Rouge tribunal”.

If true, this would be news to most people who have any familiarity with the history of the tribunal. Yet Bartu is quoted as saying there is “general agreement” about it.

The Swedish diplomat Thomas Hammarberg was directly involved in the Cambodian request for UN assistance in a court, which was signed jointly by Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Hammarberg later wrote in the magazine of the Documentation Center of Cambodia ( that, following an April 1997 resolution of the UN Commission on Human Rights that indicated possible UN support for a KR tribunal, he first approached Ranariddh, who “appeared to be hesitant about the effects of the tribunal discussion on his possibilities to attract defectors” from the KR, but who agreed to sign a letter that Hammarberg then drafted. Hammarberg next “reported these developments to Hun Sen during our subsequent meeting. He said that he of course would sign, that to defeat the Khmer Rouge had for him been a lifelong battle.”

The article includes many other assertions from Bartu about what Hun Sen and other CPP leaders were upset or thinking about in 1997, none of which include any citations of a source. Unfortunately, for most of these, there is no equivalent of Thomas Hammarberg to counter the “facts” of unnamed informants. I already hear the tramping feet of more zombies.

*Kevin Cooney, “Leading Cambodian Parties Talk of Coalition”, Reuters, 25 May 1993, cited by Professor Michael Haas of the University of Hawaii, in Back to Square One? The Cambodia Tangle, Selected Papers in Asian Studies, New Series No. 49, Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies, 1994.

Posted in Cambodia, Cambodia Daily, Cambodian People's Party, civil war, elections, Funcinpec, Hun Sen, Khmer Rouge, Khmer Times, Norodom Ranariddh, Paris Peace Agreements, Thomas Hammarberg, UNTAC | Leave a comment

Cambodian politician on US racism

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post on 26 June 2017. Not published.]

Well, yes.

Prince Sisowath Thomico, of the CNRP’s standing committee, referring to President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the US-Mexico border asks rhetorically “Is the US being racist?” (Post, Monday)

No country as a whole is racist, non-racist, or anything else. But yes, the lunatic border wall plan is racist. And yes, its author, President Trump, is a racist.

Donald Trump has a record as a racist going back decades, and he has not changed since entering politics except possibly to become more blatant about it. This helps to explain why the latest Pew Research Center survey found that 72% of Hispanics and 88% of Blacks in the USA disapprove of his record as president.

So, if Prince Thomico or anyone else wants to prove that some proposal or action of theirs is not racist, they won’t do it by saying, “It’s just like what the US government is doing.”

Posted in border wall, Cambodian National Rescue Party, Donald Trump, racism, Sisowath Thomico | Leave a comment

Commune elections: A question for the CNRP

[Published in the Khmer Times on 15 June 2017.]

The just completed commune elections raise an interesting question for the opposition CNRP.

As is well known, for the last four years, the CNRP has claimed that it “really” won the 2013 general election but was cheated out of its just result.

Less well known is that the CNRP never got around to telling the public where it thought it had been robbed: in which provinces it had been cheated out of how many votes. Leaving aside the fact that this alone raises serious doubts about the claimed fraud, consider another aspect.

The NEC’s final tally of the 2013 nationwide result was 48.83% for the CPP and 44.46% for the CNRP. (The remainder went to FUNCINPEC and other small parties, none of which won a National Assembly seat.)

If, as it claimed, the CNRP had really won 63 seats to the CPP’s 60, and since Cambodia doesn’t have an electoral college to frustrate the will of voters, certainly the CNRP would have had to obtain more votes than the CPP.

Exactly how many more is impossible to say, but of the two parties’ total (93.29%), the larger portion would have had to go to the CNRP. The division might have been 47.15% for the CNRP to 46.14% for the CPP. Or it might have been 48% to 45.29%, or even a larger margin.

So, if the CNRP claim that it was defrauded were true, that party’s vote in 2013 would have been 47% or 48% or 49% and the CPP’s total only 46% or 45% or 44% (leaving aside the fractions). That is, in effect the CNRP is claiming that its real vote was somewhere around 47-49%, but it was cheated.

In the commune elections, by contrast, there were only a few minor disputes and demands for recounts, no claims of systematic misrepresentation. We have so far only the preliminary count, but there are no challenges large enough that, if true, they could seriously alter the national vote totals. And those totals, according to press reports, are 51% for the CPP and 46% for the CNRP.

On the basis of the official figures, this is an increase for both parties over 2013 (because of a smaller vote for minor parties). But on the CNRP’s version of electoral history, its own vote has decreased by 1-3%, while the CPP’s has improved by 5-7%.

Of course the CNRP prefers to compare its 2017 vote to the 2012 commune election, when it was not united but still two smaller parties, competing with each other. But I have yet to hear of any CNRP leader admitting that this time the party didn’t do as well as in 2013.

So, the question for the CNRP is, which is it: Did your support drop in this election? Or were your claims of election fraud in 2013 so much nonsense?

Posted in Cambodia, Cambodian National Rescue Party, Cambodian People's Party, elections | Leave a comment

‘Analysts’ and the KR trials

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post on 9 May 2017. Not published.]

Your Tuesday article “KRT judges have ‘deep concerns’” states that “analysts” doubt that the judges told the full truth in expressing their concerns, and that these “analysts” further said that all three outstanding cases in the Khmer Rouge tribunal have been “‘tainted’ by government influence”.

Unfortunately, the article nowhere indicates who these “analysts” are or what their analytical qualifications consist of. There are only two individuals directly quoted in the article: a victim who is a civil party in case 003 and Long Panhavuth, who is described as an “observer”, not as an “analyst” (and there is only one of him).

This leaves the reader with no objective information by which to judge the reliability or otherwise of the views attributed to the “analysts”. It can give some readers (me, for instance) the impression that your writers wanted to express an opinion about the court but preferred to assign their opinion to an anonymous someone else. (If I were to rephrase that sentence in Post style, it would read: “Analysts believe that the Post writers wanted to express an opinion …” etc.)

The extended quotation from Long Panhavuth only makes matters worse. Neither this article nor the previous day’s article, which also quoted him extensively, says anything about his qualifications or experience as an analyst/observer, which implies that he is an accepted source of reasonably neutral opinion, like a dictionary or other reference book.

In reality, Long Panhavuth is a long-time employee of the Open Society Justice Initiative, one of billionaire currency speculator George Soros’ numerous ongoing projects for wiping out any trace of any government that was ever allied with or even reasonably friendly with the former Soviet Union.

Among the many NGOs that have meddled in the KR tribunal to ill effect, OSJI stands out by far. For example, it conducted a years-long campaign about never-specified “corruption” at the court, even while OSJI itself was illegitimately obtaining what should have been confidential information from court staff. In 2011, it learned in this way that Judge Siegfried Blunk and his Cambodian co-investigating judge had decided to dismiss Case 003, and it therefore participated in a public campaign against Judge Blunk that led to his resignation before the legal formalities to close the case had been completed.

If the Post is going to persist in quoting Long Panhavuth, aren’t readers entitled, at the least, to know the employment history of this observer/analyst?

Posted in Khmer Rouge trials, Long Panhavuth, Open Society Justice Initiative, Phnom Penh Post, Siegfried Blunk | Leave a comment

Bombs and debts

[Published in the Khmer Times on March 27, 2017.]

Your account (March 23) of the unexploded US bomb removed from a pond in Kandal is not unrelated to the $500 million “debt” that the US claims is owed to it by Cambodia, as your article indicated.

The unexploded MK-82 bomb is clearly US property but was presumably given up as lost by Washington. Hence its return would be a clear benefit to the United States and should be regarded as the equivalent of a cash payment by Cambodia. The cost of one MK-82 was around $500 in 1970, equal to more than $3,000 today.

$3,000 might not seem much against $500 million, but, as your article noted, more than 20 unexploded MK-82s have been recovered in less than three months of this year. If that figure is typical, it suggests that perhaps 3,000-4,000 MK-82s have been recovered since the end of the bombing. Returning them to US possession ought to earn Cambodia at least $7 or $8 million.

Transporting this property back to the United States would clearly cost the US government a considerable amount, so Cambodia should also be credited for the significant savings it has made for Washington by holding its property for it for four decades. A similar charge should continue until such time as the US retrieves that property (when the bombs are delivered to the US embassy).

There is an even larger consideration, although it is difficult to quantify, because most of the bombs dropped on Cambodians exploded at the time. Those bombs cannot kill any more people and therefore no longer have value to the US government, even if it were possible to return them.

Still, we should note that between 1969 and 1973, the US subjected Cambodia to the equivalent of 2 million MK-82 bombs. The cost of the explosives alone, aside from the much greater costs of the planes and military systems needed to deliver them, would have been around $1 billion in 1970 dollars, or around $6.25 billion today. Would it really be outrageous to expect the US to pay as reparations to Cambodia this portion of what it spent in destroying the country?

Perhaps the US government could “forgive” the Cambodian debt, and the Cambodian government could “forgive” an equal amount of the US bombing of Cambodians, which would leave the US owing Cambodia about $5.75 billion.

Posted in bombing, Cambodia, debt, MK-82, United States | Leave a comment

Islamophobia and its apologists

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post on March 12, 2017. Not printed.]

The Opinion piece “Islamophobia and free speech in Canada” by Canadian radio talkback host Andrew Lawton in Friday’s Post is a rather blatant defense of Islamophobia.

For most readers, including me, Lawton’s account of motions put forward in Canada’s federal and provincial Ontario parliaments is likely the first we have heard of them; hence we have no way of knowing whether Lawton’s report is accurate.

However, even taking all of Lawton’s statements of fact at face value, his fundamental argument is clearly absurd. His starting point is that the Canadian parliament is expected to pass a motion “to condemn Islamophobia and study its effect on society”, and that the Ontario parliament has already passed a similar motion. His conclusion is that the motion’s “outcome is simply less freedom”. In other words, don’t try to stop Islamophobia.

But how do the two motions lead to “less freedom”? Lawton doesn’t say. All he does say in the intervening paragraphs is two things. One is that there are other forms of bigotry and discrimination, such as anti-Semitism, in Canada. This is undoubtedly true, but why does that make it wrong for Canadian parliaments to condemn Islamophobia?

Lawton does acknowledge the recent Islamophobic terrorist murder of six Muslims in Quebec – in 12 words, including that it was “a tragedy”. But he devotes more space – several paragraphs – to condemning three acts of alleged anti-Semitism. A bigoted sermon by an imam in Montreal in 2014 – which is not alleged to have led to any actual violence – chalk drawings of swastikas in a Toronto university classroom and a tweet by a McGill University student leader are apparently more important than mass murder.

Lawton appears to mention the anti-Islam terrorism in Quebec only so that he can say that the National Council of Canadian Muslims “exploited” the murders to lobby for anti-Islamophobia education in schools. The scale is different – so far – but I wonder if Lawton would say that Jewish organizations “exploit” the Holocaust in order to advocate education against anti-Semitism.

Lawton’s second point devotes even more space to defending people who he thinks are being illegitimately persecuted – and who just happen to make a living by promoting Islamophobia. These are somebody who in 2006 republished the Muhammad cartoons from the Danish newspaper that led to a terrorist attack, and Mark Steyn, the author of America Alone, a book that says Europe will be overrun by Muslims because of Europe’s “wimpiness”, which is apparently a euphemism for “reluctance to carry out pogroms”.

These two victims, it seems, were acquitted by tribunals that heard complaints against them, but never mind, they were still victimised because “the process itself was the punishment”. Aside from the fact that any prosecution of his book would have boosted Steyn’s sales, Lawton’s position here implies that there shouldn’t be trials on any charges for anyone who hasn’t confessed. (“They accused me of robbing the bank. I was acquitted, but jeez, the whole process was terrible.”)

The allegedly anti-Semitic tweet by the McGill University student said, “punch a Zionist today”. I agree that one should not incite violence against those with whom one disagrees politically. But Lawton is just being dishonest when he equates opposition to Zionism with anti-Semitism. Judaism is a religion; Zionism is a political ideology that uses Judaism as a cover for colonialist schemes in the Middle East. But Zionists who use religion as a cover for what they are really about have to portray events in the Middle East as basically a religious conflict between “democratic” (“free speech”) Israel and “anti-Semitic” Muslims.

Finally, for those who want to know where Andrew Lawton fits into the broader political spectrum, I suggest looking up Andrew Lawton Show on Facebook. The first item when I looked promoted an upcoming interview with the “columnist [not journalist] who broke the story” about “a ‘guerilla movement’ of Iranian agents in the United States … at a time when President Donald Trump claimed Iranians were manipulating the American immigration system”. Why was I not surprised?

Posted in Andrew Lawton, anti-Semitism, Canada, Islamophobia | Leave a comment

Memo to Cambodian English-language newspapers

To: English-language papers in Phnom Penh

Subject: “Rubber stamping”

Date: 2 March 2017

I have noticed an increasing tendency for you to use the term “rubber stamp” when referring to actions by Cambodia’s elected parliamentary bodies, especially in headlines: the Senate or National Assembly “rubber stamps” this or that law proposed by the government.

This cannot be merely an editorial convenience – to save space, for example: the word “passes” takes up less space than “rubber stamps”. The implication of the phrase you use is that the body in question does not really consider the subject before it, but simply does what it is told by the government.

Of course, it is true that laws proposed by the government are almost certain to be passed by the legislative bodies in which the governing party has a majority.

But your writers and editors seem to have been resident in Cambodia for so long that they have forgotten what the rest of the world is like. I can assure you that it is quite a normal thing for elected parliaments to pass measures proposed by the government if, as is usual, the government party has a majority in the parliament. The parliament elects the government, after all.

I do not know of any country with a parliamentary system where the press normally refers to the passage of government legislation as “rubber stamping”.

There is thus a danger that your readers, who may be unaware of your writers’ long separation from reality in the West, might conclude that the apparent belittling of Cambodia’s legislative bodies reflects a bias regarding the imagined superiority of Western governance systems.

Posted in Cambodia, National Assembly, rubber stamping, Senate | Leave a comment