Coverage of ECCC verdict: A good example of bad reporting

[Submitted to the Khmer Times on 18 November 2018.]

National and international media prominently reported the conviction of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan announced by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on 16 November.

As was to be expected, the quality of this coverage varied. What might have been unexpected by many readers, however, was the degree of ignorance displayed by the New York Times. Some of this ignorance served as the basis for an attempt to use the Khmer Rouge trials to discredit the Cambodian government.

The Times report of the verdict, by Hannah Beech, declares that “Cambodia was known during the Khmer Rouge era” as the “state of Kampuchea”. It does not require extensive historical research to discover that the Khmer Rouge regime was called “Democratic Kampuchea”. Perhaps Beech and the Times have confused the KR regime with the government that overthrew it in 1979, which in 1989 changed its name from “Peoples Republic of Kampuchea” (PRK) to “State of Cambodia”.

Beech begins by calling the ECCC “an international tribunal” but later refers to it as a “United Nations-backed tribunal”. Neither is an accurate description, as anyone knows who has followed the history of the court with a modicum of attention. The ECCC is a hybrid, part of the courts of Cambodia, as its name states, but “extraordinary” in that it includes international judges selected by the UN and operates under a structure jointly managed by Cambodia and the UN.

The trials have not been held, as Beech claims, “in a custom-built courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh”. The trials, and many of the associated offices and court infrastructure, have been housed in buildings that were “custom built” for the headquarters of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. This fact is relevant to Beech’s most outrageous claim, namely that Prime Minister Hun Sen “opposed the formation of the tribunal in the first place”.

Are Beech and/or the Times counting on readers who are as ignorant as they appear to be? Consider the following:

1. Beginning in 1979, the PRK consistently called for international backing and participation in a trial of leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Lacking such backing, it conducted its own trial (necessarily in absentia) of the top then surviving KR leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. In 1986, Hun Sen repeated the 1979 request for international assistance in a trial in a letter to the UN secretary general.

2. The more immediate path to the ECCC started in June 1997, when First and Second Prime Ministers Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen wrote to the UN, asking for international assistance in organising and conducting trials.

3. After negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government, the latter demonstrated its support for a hybrid tribunal through a unanimous vote of the National Assembly in 2001.

4. The UN Office of Legal Affairs abruptly withdrew from the negotiations in 2002. Had the Cambodian government not wanted the trials, this would have been an opportunity to abandon the effort at virtually no political cost. Instead, it went on a year-long diplomatic offensive that resulted in a vote by the UN General Assembly instructing the OLA to resume the negotiations.

5. Unlike other countries in which the UN has been involved in trials of former leaders, Cambodia has made significant contributions to the costs of the KR trials. In addition to giving up the headquarters of the RCAF for more than 12 years, it has made a host of in-kind contributions in infrastructure services and facilitation and protection of investigations; their value is estimated at $16 million. The Cambodian government’s cash contributions to the functioning of the ECCC have been $29 million. Among governments providing support for the ECCC, Cambodia’s contribution is surpassed only by Japan’s.

6. Through most of the trials, government radio and TV stations have provided live coverage of the proceedings.

7. Beech may be correct when she says that Prime Minister Hun Sen believes that the trials have accomplished what they needed to accomplish and do not need to go on indefinitely. However, she claims that “others would like trials to extend to many lower-ranking officials” without telling us who those “others” are. This is a reference to the so-called cases 003 and 004, in which potential defendants are from a lower level than those in cases 001 and 002. None of the “others” who want to pursue these cases are Cambodian judicial officials of the ECCC: all of the personnel investigating these cases are UN-appointed officials. Despite this, the Cambodian government has continued providing security and other support for those investigations since they were initiated in 2008.

8. For a government that was supposedly opposed to the KR trials, it has done a great deal to preserve their records and results, including establishing memorials and creating and funding the Legal Documentation Centre related to the ECCC.

Predictably, Beech completely ignores the context when she trots out the 1998 words of Hun Sen that Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan should be met with “bouquets of flowers, not with prisons and handcuffs”. Yes, when Hun Sen’s Win-Win Policy persuaded leaders of the remaining Khmer Rouge forces to stop fighting, that necessarily involved abstaining from immediately throwing those leaders into prison and welcoming them back into Cambodian society. But they were not promised an amnesty from future prosecution.

Here we are dealing with questions that often seem to have puzzled other media in addition to the New York Times. In a rather tired trope, Beech writes that the ECCC “entire effort has cost more than $300 million” but complains that “the court has convicted just three senior Khmer Rouge leaders”.

Justice, it seems, is a matter of cost effectiveness, like an advertising campaign for toothpaste: “we invested $x million in TV spots but only increased sales by 3% – fire the advertising department”; “we invested $300 million in trials and only got three people convicted – what extravagance!” (I don’t have the figures, but a significant part of that $300 million would have been spent on cases 003 and 004: do the “others” backing further trials hope thereby to improve their cost effectiveness [conviction/expenditure ratio]?)

Of course, trials of KR criminals necessarily involved the eventual imprisonment of some of the criminals. But putting people in jail was never the main point. Two related aims were always what the trials were primarily about. The first was to create an authoritative record in which Cambodians would share with each other what they had been through. The second was to have this record internationally recognised, particularly by the UN, whose support for and seating of the Khmer Rouge for a dozen years after their overthrow was an offence against millions of Cambodians.

In these objectives, particularly the first, the ECCC has been hugely successful. Beech seems unable to recognise this reality even when she refers to some of its elements. She acknowledges that the court has spent more than a decade “sift[ing] through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, call[ing] hundreds of witnesses and hear[ing] in exhaustive detail how the Khmer Rouge ran its killing fields”. But later in the article, she follows up with the total non sequitur that, in regard to the KR period, “little national introspection has occurred”.

Little national introspection”! It would be difficult to invent a more foolish and arrogant remark. What sort of introspection could surpass the trials and documentation provided by the ECCC?

Uncountable numbers of Cambodians have listened to the trials on radio or television; half a million made the journey from the provinces to observe the ECCC proceedings in Phnom Penh; 8,000 submitted complaints to the prosecution or applications to become part of the trials. All that is not good enough, apparently: none of those Cambodians have thought as deeply as have Beech and the NYT editors about what happened to them in the “state of Kampuchea”.

Posted in ECCC, Hun Sen, Khmer Rouge trials, Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations | Leave a comment

Elections: An open letter to President Trump

[Sent to the Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post on 15 November 2018. Published by the Post on 20 November.]

Dear Mr President,

The recent US elections have produced considerable controversy about parties on one side or the other allegedly rigging the results reported by computers. And then, in some cases, when a recount is conducted, the computers overheat and the recount can’t be completed.

I would like to suggest a way to end these problems. The US should adopt the Cambodian system of counting votes.

In Cambodian elections, the votes are counted by people, not by computers. Representatives of the parties involved are present and can check the count if they think the person counting has made a mistake. The ballots are retained in case anyone else might later want to have them checked again.

Having computers instead of people count ballots was introduced as a way of speeding up election results, but it hasn’t even done that. And anyway, surely a speedy result is not more important than an accurate result.

According to what I read, US educational standards have deteriorated in recent years. But I hope there are still enough US officials available who would be able to count ballots.

However, if US election officials require training in numeracy or other aspects of vote counting, the Cambodian government would probably be willing to provide some of its election officials on secondment to train US officials in these skills.

With this Cambodian assistance, the US might be able to conclude its next elections in a much less divisive atmosphere.


Allen Myers

Posted in Cambodia, Donald Trump, elections | Leave a comment

A need for election monitors

[Published in the Phnom Penh Post on 13 August 2018.]

Now that Cambodia’s national elections have concluded peacefully, Cambodian politicians, civil society and other opinion leaders may be able to make an important contribution to the maintenance or development of democracy in other countries.

The United States is scheduled to hold elections for all of its House of Representatives and one-third of its Senate in November. The conditions under which these elections will be held are a matter of considerable and increasing dispute.

The opposition Democratic Party has accused legislators of the currently ruling Republican Party of manipulating electoral boundaries (“gerrymandering”) to the latter’s advantage. Many Democrats also charge that the Republicans have accepted illegitimate assistance from foreign countries, mainly Russia, and have violated traditional legislative rules in order to fill the courts with political allies.

On the other side, the Republicans accuse the Democrats of encouraging voting by people who are not US citizens or are disqualified from voting for other reasons. President Donald Trump has many times publicly proclaimed that 5 million foreign citizens voted illegally in the country’s 2016 election.

Furthermore, many aspects of US elections are conducted by computer systems whose operations are not at all transparent, and which may be subject to hacking.

In this polarised situation, it seems certain that whichever party fares less well in the November elections will denounce the result as illegitimate, which can only increase the level of mutual hostility.

But perhaps Cambodia could help to defuse the situation, even if only a little, by providing monitors to observe and report on the conduct of the upcoming elections.

Of course, it is too late for monitors from Cambodia or any other countries to push for changes in US laws that often allow a minority of voters to elect the President or a majority of the House of Representatives and Senate, especially since both major parties seem to regard these undemocratic provisions as sacrosanct.

However, the presence of impartial Cambodian and other monitors might help to give the US elections a legitimacy that would otherwise be denied by the losing side.

Posted in Cambodia, election observers, United States | Leave a comment

An easy choice

[Sent to the Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post on 7 August. Published by the Post on 15 August 2018.]

Donald Trump has declared that the world must choose between “doing business” with Iran and with the United States. Since the aim of this enforced choice is to allow the US government to violate any agreements it has signed but now finds inconvenient, the choice is easy.

I will therefore refrain from buying any US products if the same product is available from any other source.

Fortunately, in Cambodia most US products have to compete with European products, and the European countries involved are seeking to maintain the agreement that Trump is violating. I hope that others who consider nuclear non-proliferation more important than the “right” of big powers to bully other countries will join me in refusing to buy US products whenever there is an alternative.

Posted in Iran, nuclear weapons, sanctions | Leave a comment

Democracy: A comparison

[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times on 29 July 2018. Not published.]

Several members of the US Congress have introduced a bill supposedly intended to bring about greater democracy in Cambodia. That raises the need for some comparisons.

In Cambodia, the party that receives the most votes heads the government.

In the United States, the current president received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. The president elected in 2000 also received fewer votes than his opponent.

In Cambodia, the party that receives the most votes has always had a majority in the National Assembly.

In the United States, it is possible for a majority in the House of Representatives to be won by a party that lost the popular vote. For example, in the 2012 election, the Republicans received a national vote total that was 1.4 million less than the Democrats received, but the Republicans won 234 seats compared to only 201for the Democrats.

In Cambodia, Senators are elected by commune councillors and the National Assembly, and therefore approximately in proportion to the population.

In the United States, Senators elected by less than one-sixth of the population are half of the Senate; the vote for senator of one voter in the least populous state equals the vote of 65 people in the most populous state.

In Cambodia, the government has actively and consistently encouraged all citizens to vote.

In the United States, a significant number of state legislatures have been imposing restrictions that limit the number of voters.

In Cambodia, elections are conducted with paper ballots, which are carefully preserved in case there is a need for a recount.

In the United States, most votes are cast on electronic machines that keep no verifiable record, which have malfunctioned in the past and which many experts fear can be hacked.

In Cambodia, the government and legislature operate on the principle that each country should manage its own affairs, without outside interference.

In the United States, the government and legislature act on the belief that they have the right to prescribe rules for other countries.

Doesn’t it make you think about who should be teaching whom about democracy?

Posted in democracy, elections | Leave a comment

RFA goes hunting

Not for the first time, Radio Free Asia has seized on comments from a UN official and a professional NGO critic to attack the Cambodian government.

On July 20, RFA broadcast that Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on Cambodia, had “expressed concern” about aspects of the campaign for the July 29 general election.

According to RFA, Smith’s “concern” mainly revolved around “reports” of government or Cambodian People’s Party members “intimidating” voters by telling them that failing to vote or advocating that other people not vote is illegal.

One of the problems here is that RFA – whether quoting Smith accurately or not, I don’t know – simply refers to “reports”. This is a standard practice of bad journalism: it seeks to convince readers or listeners that something is true, but doesn’t identify the source of the “reports”, so that it’s impossible to judge whether the “reports” are reliable.

Some leaders of the former CNRP have advocated that voters boycott the election. Supporters of the CPP, or of the 19 other parties contesting the election, have of course urged voters to vote. If they have claimed that it is illegal not to vote, that is probably incorrect, and most Cambodians would probably know that, since no election here has had anything like 100% participation, but there is no record of non-voters in previous elections being prosecuted.

While there is not a Cambodian law that requires everyone to vote, compulsory voting is not at all unknown in countries generally regarded as democratic. As an Australian citizen, I am legally required to vote in national, state and even local government elections. In the past, Australians who advocated not voting (I am not one of them) have been prosecuted. Wikipedia lists more than 20 countries in which voting is required, although enforcement of such laws is apparently uneven.

RFA – and maybe Rhona Smith? – may also be unaware that voting in Cambodia is done by secret ballot. So if someone wants to protest against something by not voting but is afraid to be identified, they can simply not mark their ballot before depositing it in the ballot box.

The RFA also drags in comments from Human Rights Watch, none of which are related to election boycotting, but are part of RFA’s effort to gather up every possible criticism. For at least 20 years, Human Rights Watch has been notorious for always slamming the Cambodian government, even if doing so required inventing “facts”.

This HRW complaint was even sillier than usual, namely that some “senior members of the security forces” had publicly supported voting for Hun Sen. In most countries, members of the security forces have the same rights as other citizens, including the right to support the political party of their choice. Also in most countries, including Cambodia, senior officials have no way of knowing how any person has voted.

In its effort to create some sort of scandal, RFA also provides an illustration of what might be called “How to lie without lying”. While the article was mainly about Rhona Smith’s comment, RFA also threw in additional “reports” from unidentified sources. One was that CPP “agents had threatened to end public services for indigenous residents of Mondulkiri province” if they didn’t vote the right way.

RFA then presented two paragraphs that skipped back to its earlier account of election boycotts, perhaps to cloud listeners’ memories of what had just been said, before it returned to Mondulkiri:

Earlier this week, when asked about the possibility of voter fraud in Mondulkiri province, Hang Puthea, the spokesman for the National Election Committee (NEC)—Cambodia’s top electoral body—told RFA that he had not received any complaints and was therefore unable to act.

But NGOs said that threatening to withhold public services from those who refuse to cast a ballot for a specific party is unlawful, and suggested that the NEC should examine the claims.”

Most readers/listeners of those paragraphs would take away the idea that the NEC had refused to investigate accusations of voter intimidation in Mondulkiri. That is the intended impression, but it is totally false. Look again:

NEC spokesman Hang Puthea was not asked about voter intimidation; he was “asked about the possibility of voter fraud”, which is quite a different matter.

A further distortion occurs in the second paragraph quoted, which RFA begins with “But” – implying that the NGOs contradict the NEC spokesman when they say that withholding services is unlawful. But Hang Puthea didn’t defend withholding services or suggest that doing so would be legal. What he said was that the NEC had not received any complaints about such threats.

And yet RFA quotes approvingly unnamed NGOs that it says want the NEC to “examine” the claims that it hasn’t received! RFA set out to catch the government in some kind of bad behaviour, but ends up catching nothing more than its own tail.

Posted in election law, elections, Radio Free Asia, Rhona Smith, UNHCHR | Leave a comment


[Sent to the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times on 20 June. Not published.]

The United States government asserts the right to sanction people in other countries who it says have behaved in ways it views as unacceptable. Shouldn’t the rest of the world follow its example?

The scandalous child abuse taking place on the United States’ southern border demands action against those responsible. Cambodia – better yet, all of ASEAN – should ban visas for and freeze any property of, at the very least, homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, attorney general Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump.

If pictures of caged children don’t move them, perhaps the closing of hotels or other businesses branded with the Trump name might have an effect.

Posted in Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, Kirstjen Nielsen, sanctions | Leave a comment