Many flaws in comparative election study

Stop press! The Cambodia Daily, which modestly calls itself Cambodia’s “Daily Newspaper of Record”, has just rediscovered, and put on its front page (September 24 issue), a story that it first ran two and a half years ago.

Even when it was new, the story was not much news. A US-Australian academic project to grade the quality of elections around the world had released a report in 2014 giving Cambodia’s 2013 national election a low score. Poor countries with a difficult recent history aren’t as good at conducting elections as rich countries with a more comfortable history. Who would have thought it?

The academic project has not re-evaluated the 2013 election, and Cambodia hasn’t had another election since then, so one might ask: Where is the news?

Well, it must have been a slow Saturday, and someone at the Daily found a press release from the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), the name chosen by the US and Australian academics to describe what they were doing. And since they evaluated the Cambodian election, a lot of other countries have had elections, and the EIP has decided that many of those later elections had more “integrity” than Cambodia’s 2013 election. Real front-page stuff.

Still, aside from its lack of news value, both EIP reports are guaranteed to be quoted repeatedly by anti-government politicians and NGOs, so it is perhaps worthwhile looking at what the study does and doesn’t do.

Perceptions and observation

A sentence earlier, I put the word “integrity” in quotation marks. I did so because the integrity of elections is not really what the EIP has been measuring. It would be more accurate for the study to be called the Electoral Impressions Project.

This is because the study did not directly observe any aspect of elections. Instead, it sent a questionnaire to “around 40” people in each country who, EIP believed, were “experts” on electoral matters there. On average, around 29% of them completed the questionnaire. These individuals were asked to give their “perception” of how well or badly different aspects of elections had been conducted.

Experts on Cambodia in this field seem to have been a bit more cooperative than the average. Still, only15 people (nine foreign and six Cambodian) gave their impressions of the 2013 election. EIP says it has no information as to whether the nine foreigners were in Cambodia during the voter registration, campaign and voting about which they gave their perceptions.

Obviously, it is much easier to collect the opinions of a small (or even a large) number of people than it is to collect objective data on a topic as complex and contested as elections – and especially so if the aim is to cover a large number of countries. Nevertheless, there are obvious problems with basing a judgment of the quality of elections on the impressions of only 15 people, no matter how expert they might be; an awareness of these problems ought to impose limits on the conclusions and generalities that are drawn from the study results.

For most if not all of the respondents, their perceptions on most or all points will have had to be formed mainly by what they hear or read others saying, not what they observe themselves. The EIP questionnaire was in English, so the respondents on Cambodia were able to read the Phnom Penh English-language press, which has usually been critical of Cambodia’s elections. The six Cambodian experts could also read the Khmer press, which might balance the English newspapers to some extent. We don’t know how many, if any, of the foreign experts read the Khmer press.

Form before content

A major problems with the EIP survey is that attempting to compare elections across 153 countries makes it all but impossible to put any of those elections into their local context. A comparison of elections among that many countries, when that is all that’s compared, is already grossly distorted before the first question is asked or the first impression is noted. To have some chance of being meaningful, a ranking of countries’ election integrity would have to be adjusted for many other factors, from degree of wealth or poverty, to cultural attitudes towards disagreement or competition, to recent history of social peace or turmoil or war.

One way to start doing that would be to compare each country’s election, not to the rest of the world, but to its own history: are its elections increasing or decreasing in integrity? Then country comparisons might tell us something that wasn’t obvious before the research began: instead of “developed countries’ elections are mostly perceived to have more integrity than the elections of poor countries”, we might learn things such as “Country A’s overall electoral performance is improving, while its neighbour Country B is backsliding”.

By reducing the measure of electoral integrity to questions about perceptions of the mechanisms of elections, the EIP survey substitutes form for content: how many of the survey’s 49 boxes were ticked pushes aside the question of whether an election accomplished the most important thing that an election ought to accomplish: did its result reflect the expressed will of the citizenry? – or to put it more simply: did the candidate or party with the most votes win the office that was being voted for?

The EIP questionnaire goes into things like media coverage that might influence how people vote, and that is certainly a subject worth investigating. But whether or not an election can be called democratic depends in the first instance on whether the candidate with the most votes wins. This question is not only central but also has the advantage of being objective: unless the vote count has been falsified, it is possible for anyone to see whether the person with the most votes won. But this question is not included in the EIP survey – not even in the form of whether experts have the perception that the person or party with the most votes was elected.

Nobody has ever brought a specific challenge to the official count of Cambodia’s 2013 election, which had the CPP winning around 300,000 votes more than the CNRP. (The CNRP claimed to the media that it had really won, but it never specified any vote totals from any province that were significantly different from the NEC’s totals.) But in some other countries, which have a higher ranking than Cambodia in the EIP study, it is not at all unusual for a person or party to be declared elected even though a different person or party has a higher number of officially reported votes.

Since the EIP is based in the United States and Australia (at Harvard University and Sydney University), let’s look just at those two countries. As is fairly well known, the US presidential election in 2000 was fiercely disputed, and the result was eventually decided by the US Supreme Court. What is perhaps not so well known is that Al Gore received around half a million more votes than George W. Bush, but Bush was elected. More recently, in the 2012 election for the US House of Representatives, the Democratic Party won 1.4 million more votes than the Republican Party, but the Republicans ended up with 234 seats and the Democrats with only 201.

Australia has a long record of minorities in the popular vote winning a majority in the House of Representatives, which determines the government. In 28 elections since the end of World War II, this has happened five times.

A closely related question is whether the votes of all citizens have the same degree of influence on the outcome of elections. Anomalies such as minorities in the vote winning a majority in the outcome are more likely to occur in countries that are federations, because equality between the states or provinces that make up the federation means inequality between the inhabitants of those states or provinces if those divisions do not have equal populations. (Both the United States and Australia are federations.)

Voting populations for members of the US House of Representatives are approximately equal in size, but in the equally powerful Senate, they are hugely different. There are two senators elected from each state, and state populations, according to the 2010 census, vary from 564,000 to more than 37 million: a Wyoming resident’s vote for the Senate is worth 65 times as much as the vote of a Californian.

Election of the US president is also biased against residents of populous states, although not to the same degree as in elections for the Senate. The president is elected by an Electoral College, whose members are what voters actually vote for. In California, it takes around 680,000 votes to elect one member of the Electoral College; in Wyoming it takes only 190,000.

In Australia, members of the House of Representatives are from districts of approximately equal population, but there are big differences in the number of voters represented by senators from different states. One senator from Tasmania represents a bit more than 41,000 people, while one senator from New South Wales represents more than 576,000 – a ratio nearly one to 14. Nationwide, less than 23% of the population elect a majority of the Senate.

In Cambodia, the requirement that every province have at least one member of the National Assembly also leads to discrepancies in the number of voters per seat, but the significant differences are only among the single-member provinces. Preah Sihanouk, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear are under-represented, while Kep and Mondulkiri are over-represented. In the provinces with two or more National Assembly seats, the population per seat ranges from around 100,000 to 170,000. And because the single-member provinces elect only nine of 123 members of the NA, anomalies in those provinces are less likely to affect significantly the overall outcome of the election.

If the EIP survey had considered just these two questions, Cambodia’s ranking would have been closer to the rankings of the US and Australia.

Odd results

There were some obviously strange results of the study. For example, describing the first report, the Cambodia Daily (March 5, 2014) noted that Cambodia’s score was below that of Azerbaijan – “whose election body accidentally released some election results the day before the ballot had even taken place”! It is hard to imagine more conclusive proof that an election is rigged – so how can any other country rank below it, no matter how bad its other procedures may be perceived to be by EIP’s experts? Perhaps the answer is that the Azerbaijani experts are not very perceptive.

More likely, it lies in the EIP’s procedure. The questionnaire consists of 49 statements spread over 11 areas such as electoral laws, campaign finance and voting process. Respondents were asked to score the statements on a scale of 1 to 5, representing respectively strong disagreement, disagreement, neither agreement nor disagreement, agreement and strong agreement. Because some statements were positive and some negative, EIP reversed the response on negative statements, so that for all statements, a higher number represents greater perceived integrity. Each country’s overall score was then “calculated as an additive scale by summing up the scores of all 49 indicators, and standardizing the result to a scale from 0 to 100”. (This account of the scoring was kindly provided by EIP researcher Max Grömping, whom the Cambodia Daily in its September 24 article calls “Max Groening”.)

This means that all 49 statements have the same amount of influence on a country’s total score. It seems that the Azerbaijan experts would likely have strongly disagreed with statement 9-3, “Votes were counted fairly”. Since the vote counting in Cambodian elections is quite transparent, Cambodia probably scored higher than Azerbaijan on this point. But that was only 1/49 of the countries’ total scores. I don’t know anything about voting procedures in Azerbaijan, but if its elections include the possibility of postal ballots, internet voting, special voting facilities for the disabled or allowing citizens living abroad to vote, then Azerbaijan would have scored better than Cambodia, which has none of those things.

Each of those items is a separate question, so together in the EIP survey they far outweigh fair counting of the vote. In determining the integrity of an election, the survey presumes that the provision of postal ballots is as important as counting the vote fairly.

This is not the only example where the questionnaire appears unbalanced or problematic. The areas of electoral law, boundaries and voter registration each have three questions. Other areas have four, five or eight (“voting process”) questions. Are “campaign media” and “campaign finance” (each 5 questions) really 1 2/3 times as important as “voter registration” (3 questions) in determining the character of an election, but only 62% as important as “voting procedures” (8 questions) ? I have no idea, but the report would be more convincing if the EIP were to explain why it assigns such relative importance to the different areas.

Another peculiarity is that questions sometimes appear logically to duplicate others. For instance, the three questions on voter registration are:

“4-1 Some citizens were not listed in the register

“4-2 The electoral register was inaccurate

“4-3 Some ineligible electors were registered”

It is obvious that if either 4-1 or 4-3 is true, then 4-2 is necessarily also true, and if they are false, so is it. So why include it?

Similarly, the three questions on boundaries are:

“3-1 Boundaries discriminated against some parties

“3-2 Boundaries favored incumbents

“3-3 Boundaries were impartial”

If either 3-1 or 3-2 is true, then 3-3 is false, and vice versa, so there is no need to ask the specific question. Are such redundant questions included in order to check on whether respondents are being consistent? Or are they intended to boost the relative weight of these area in determining the overall score? Again, that is anyone’s guess.

Ambiguities

Others of the 49 questions treat their topics as absolutely good or bad, when a more nuanced judgment seems appropriate. For instance, the Azerbaijan experts would presumably have to agree strongly with question 9-2 that “The results were announced without undue delay”, since the results came even before the voting. So Azerbaijan must have received maximum points for that question, although the answer does not really reflect well on that election’s integrity.

Or consider question 2-4, “Elections were conducted in accordance with the law”. That seems a good thing – until one looks at the questions in the section on electoral laws: “1-1 Electoral laws were unfair to smaller parties; 1-2 Electoral laws favored the governing party or parties; 1-3 Election laws restricted citizens’ rights”. If a country is marked down in section 1 for bad laws, it nevertheless is marked up in section 2 for enforcing those bad laws.

Or consider 6-5, “Social media were used to expose electoral fraud”. If a country got a low score on this, it might be for two quite different reasons: (1) social media were too afraid or too fooled to expose fraud; (2) users of social media perceived no significant electoral fraud.

And if I were asked to agree or disagree with statement 7-1, “Parties/candidates had equitable access to public subsidies”, I don’t know what I could answer. There weren’t any public subsidies for anyone, so that means I should disagree. On the other hand, if no one gets anything, that is equitable, so I should agree. (I take “public subsidies” as referring to official support, because a separate question refers to illegitimate use of state resources.)

Then there is statement 8-1, “Some voters were threatened with violence at the poll”. I and many other perceivers, even if we don’t qualify as experts, would have to strongly agree with that statement. An observer from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Guardian newspaper and Licadho observers reported instances in the 2013 election of violence or the threat of violence blocking would-be voters in S’ang Phnom commune, S’ang district, Kandal province; Traeuy Sla commune, S’ang district; Russey Keo district of Phnom Penh; Leuk Teik district of Kandal; and Preah Sdach district of Prey Veng, among other places. (For details, see https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/2014-2/how-the-era-covers-for-violence-and-racism/.)

These incidents would have caused alert experts to give Cambodian elections a bad score on this point, lowering its overall score, which will certainly be used by the opposition CNRP and many NGO critics to say: “See! Proof that the government manipulated the election!”

But in every one of those incidents, it was mobs spurred on by CNRP leaders who committed the violence, usually to prevent voting by Cambodian citizens who were ethnically Vietnamese. A survey intended for 153 countries has difficulty including such unexpected realities.

Conclusion

Overall, the EIP studies may provide some useful data on perceptions of many aspects of elections in the countries surveyed. Those perceptions may or may not reflect parts of the reality, depending on the country concerned. But there seems little or no justification for summing those perceptions into a total country score in the way it was done, and even less reason to compare those scores to say that one country’s elections have more or less integrity than another’s.

Posted in Asia Foundation, Cambodia Daily, Cambodian National Rescue Party, Cambodian People's Party, elections, Electoral Integrity Project | Leave a comment

Gareth Evans’ complaint

[Published by the Cambodia Daily on 1 August 2016.]

Cambodians who know history will be familiar with “the white man’s burden” and the “mission civilisatrice”. These euphemisms for colonialists imposing their will on the colonised are no longer much used, but the arrogance they express is still with us, and even growing.

Witness the remarks of Australia’s former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, as quoted in the Daily on Saturday: “… I cut Hun Sen so much slack …”.

The phrase “cutting slack” may originate from barrel making, but today Australians use the phrase mainly to describe training dogs or horses – “cutting the slack” of the rope as the animal learns to do what it is told without being physically constrained.

The person cutting the slack is in a position of control, deciding how much freedom of movement an animal – or a subordinate human being – might be allowed.

That is obviously how Evans regards his relationship with the Cambodian government: I told them what to do but they’re not doing it!

Posted in Gareth Evans, Hun Sen | Leave a comment

Global Witness, markets and corruption

If one knew nothing but the hectoring tone of the Global Witness report Hostile Takeover, one could easily conclude that members of Hun Sen’s family have done nothing since 1979 except manipulate government influence to enrich themselves illegitimately. GW totally ignores the history that has created the current situation of the Cambodian economy.

Under great international pressure (including from open and covert supporters of the Khmer Rouge military threat), three decades ago the Cambodian government legalised the conduct of private businesses. The 1991 Paris peace accord and the arrival of UNTAC brought the full opening of Cambodia as a market economy.

Accumulating wealth the way rich people in the West do it was what Cambodians were told they should attempt. Many of them, including but not limited to children of people in politics, tried to do so. Hun Mana, Hun Sen’s oldest daughter, has been a successful entrepreneur for two decades. Unless GW has some evidence that her businesses have thrived for illegitimate reasons, that is part of the usual workings of a market economy: some people become richer than others.

If GW doesn’t like this economic reality, it should complain to the people who demanded that Cambodia adopt a market economy. But there is evidence that GW has no objection to the rule of the market in general – only in Cambodia.

Stephen Peel is quoted in the GW press release about the report warning foreign investors about the “risk” of “doing business with companies that are owned or controlled by the country’s ruling family”. Peel is identified as “a former senior partner at private equity firm TPG Capital and member of the Global Witness board”.

That description doesn’t give the full flavour of Peel’s career. After graduating from Cambridge University in 1989, Peel went to work for Goldman Sachs, the banking company which ordinary Americans love so much that in 2008 they besieged the Congress, demanding that it give Goldman Sachs billions of dollars to make up for its stupidly greedy bad investments.

Peel’s speciality was leveraged buyouts. This is a method of making huge amounts of money by impoverishing people who actually produce things or provide useful services. It was developed in the United States at a time when the economy was stagnant and interest rates and share prices both were low. People who provided the model for the character Gordon Gekko (“greed is good”) in the 1987 film Wall Street worked out that they could borrow large sums at low interest, buy control of companies whose shares were underpriced, sell off (“strip”) the company’s assets, use the proceeds to repay their loan and still have hundreds of millions left over as profit.

In 1997, Peel was hired by TPG to open its European office. According to the June 20, 2014, Wall Street Journal:

TPG Capital’s Stephen Peel has earned billions of dollars in profits for the firm, repute as a private-equity pioneer, and the disdain of German politicians, one of whom branded deal makers as ‛locusts’ following Mr. Peel’s debt-laden takeover of bathroom-fittings maker Grohe in 2004.”

It wasn’t always easy, as the WSJ article noted: “In Russia, TPG is currently sitting on a $1.8 billion profit from a 2009 takeover of the Lenta supermarket chain, which succeeded only after a feud between rival shareholder groups descended into a street brawl.”

There were other little problems that TPG (not necessarily Peel personally) ran into. The Economist of June 20, 2015, reported on a court case that arose after “the takeover in 2005 of a Greek telecoms group, TIM Hellas, by funds set up by TPG and Apax Partners, two private-equity giants”. According to the Economist:

Hellas wobbled—and eventually toppled—after the private-equity sponsors increased its debt many times over in short order, while simultaneously extracting several times more money than they had put in. This prompted a legal battle with bondholders and the liquidators, which is still going on. The liquidators have accused the former owners of ‛duplicitous and catastrophic plunder’ that amounted to ‛one of the very worst abuses of the private-equity industry’. Apax denies wrongdoing. TPG declined to comment.”

In 2014, a New York court ordered TPG and Apax to repay $565 million to private investors in Hellas.

But mere street brawls and court brawls can’t stop the money flows. According to the WSJ, “a list of 10 deals that Mr. Peel led in seven countries shows he made his firm a $4.47 billion profit from assets that cost $2.49 billion”.

How about that, folks! A profit of 180 percent! And the $4.47 billion “earned” by Mr Peel is 22 times the total wealth that GW attributes to Hun Sen’s family, and roughly 280 times the ownership described in the GW documents. No wonder Peel warns against investing in Cambodia: there’s a lot more to be made a lot more easily with TPG and similar firms in Europe and the US.

The activities of such Western firms are not called “corruption” – except occasionally, when the thieves fall out and pursue each other in court (or street brawls). The logic of groups like GW is that the underdeveloped countries should be more like the developed countries – or rather, like the image of themselves that developed countries’ governments promote. GW doesn’t seem to realise that it is primarily the developed countries that have made the underdeveloped countries what they are.

A much more sensible understanding of corruption was presented by Dr Jason Hickel, a lecturer in the London School of Economics, in an opinion piece written for the al-Jazeera network two years ago (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/01/flipping-corruption-myth-201412094213280135.html).

Dr Hickel pointed out that, while the World Bank estimates that developing countries lose $20-40 billion a year to corruption, tax avoidance “accounts for more than $900bn each year, money that multinational corporations steal from developing countries through practices such as trade mispricing”. He continued:

This enormous outflow of wealth is facilitated by a shadowy financial system that includes tax havens, paper companies, anonymous accounts, and fake foundations, with the City of London at the very heart of it. Over 30 percent of global foreign direct investment is booked through tax havens, which now collectively hide one-sixth of the world’s total private wealth.”

Dr Hickel offers some information about London and the UK that ought to interest a campaigner against corruption and undemocratic political influence like Global Witness, which has offices in London:

With the City of London at the centre of the global tax haven web, how does the UK end up with a clean [rating from Transparency International]?

The question is all the more baffling given that the City is immune from many of the nation’s democratic laws and free of all parliamentary oversight … More than 70 percent of the votes cast during [City of London] council elections are cast not by residents, but by corporations – mostly banks and financial firms. And the bigger the corporation, the more votes they get, with the largest firms getting 79 votes each. This takes US-style corporate personhood to another level.

“… This kind of corruption is not entirely out of place in a country where a feudalistic royal family owns 120,000 hectares of the nation’s land and sucks up around £40m ($65.7m) of public funds each year. Then there’s the parliament, where the House of Lords is filled not by election but by appointment, with 92 seats inherited by aristocratic families, 26 set aside for the leaders of the country’s largest religious sect, and dozens of others divvied up for sale to multi-millionaires.”

When can we expect the Global Witness report denouncing this vast business and political empire, beside which GW’s grossest exaggerations about Cambodia appear very small indeed? Don’t hold your breath.

Different countries have varying legal definitions of corruption. But there are no markets anywhere in the world that do not harbour some dishonest behaviour. People who fund organisations like Global Witness often do so because they hope that a focus on corruption in underdeveloped countries will distract attention from the corruption by which Western corporations rob countries like Cambodia. (Last year, well over half of donations received by Global Witness came from the foundations of two hedge fund billionaires, George Soros and John Arnold.)

Does that mean we should ignore or tolerate the corruption that does exist here? Not at all. But it does mean that some people are paid to find some corruption, whether it is real or not.

Posted in Cambodia, corruption, Global Witness, Goldman Sachs, Gordon Gekko, Jason Hickel, Stephen Peel, TPG Capital | Leave a comment

‛Journalism’ as she is abused at the Cambodia Daily

Two-and-a-half years ago, I received an email from Colin Meyn, who is now the Editor-in-Chief of the Cambodia Daily, revealing an intention to conduct what is known in journalism as a “fishing expedition”. In essence, that means: If you want to discredit someone, go ask them, or someone who claims to know them, a lot of questions and see if that turns up some quotations that can be used for the purpose.

At the time, it seems that not enough useful quotes could be found, and the intended article didn’t appear.

Still, I wasn’t completely surprised when, a few week ago, I received an email from Ben Paviour, one of the Daily’s 23 (yes, really) editors. And yes, Paviour was working on the same sort of assumptions that had motivated his predecessor.

Rather than try to summarise those assumptions, I reproduce here the relevant correspondence between myself and Meyn and Paviour, assuming that readers can see for themselves the axe that the Daily was grinding. Where explanations are needed, or where I couldn’t resist adding a comment, these are included in curly brackets: { }

I have copied this material from email messages, and reordered it chronologically. It is possible that in this process I have introduced minor formatting errors, such as combining two paragraphs into one or vice versa.

Wed, 2014-01-29 at 16:06

Dear Allen,

I hope this email finds you well. I am working on a piece for the Daily about your work with Cambodia’s government, following remarks from Deputy Prime Minister Sok An that seemed to mirror your own writings about the Electoral Reform Alliance {If a Cambodian minister and I agree about something, it must be because he has paid me to say it, or because he isn’t bright enough to see the point by himself}. If you have a chance to respond to a few questions by tomorrow morning, it would be much appreciated.

– What is your relationship with the government?

– Why do you spend your time writing opinion pieces defending the government?

– Why do you believe that U.S.-funded organizations, such as NDI and IRI, are actively working against the CPP?

– Do you feel that your own role with the CPP government {He assumes that I have a “role” or “relationship” with the government, even though he has just asked what it is} is appropriate, given that you too are a foreigner?

If you would prefer to speak over the phone, please let me know when you are available to speak. Best regards,

Colin

Thu, 30 Jan 2014 10:02:20 +0700

Dear Colin,
I hope this is not too late for you. I didn’t see your email until this morning.
My only relationship with the Cambodian government is assisting the Press and Quick Reaction Unit by correcting the English in some of its releases. This is voluntary, unpaid and infrequent activity.
I have been resident in Cambodia since 2000, and have written letters to newspapers on various topics since that time. A few years ago, I decided to publish my comments in a blog, which anyone can read at https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com Anyone is free to use those comments, as the introduction to the blog states: “Any article on this blog may be freely reproduced without charge, provided that attribution is included to the author and the blog address.”
Your other questions are based on inaccurate assumptions.
Regards,
Allen

On Thu, 2014-01-30 at 10:52 +0700, Colin Meyn wrote:

Hi Allen,

Thanks for the response. If you have a chance to respond in the next few hours, a couple of additional questions.

What has been your main occupation in Cambodia since 2000?

Why do you spend your time writing opinion pieces defending the government?

Best,

Colin

30 Jan 2014 11:53:15

Hi Colin,

My main occupation has been freelance editing (mostly for NGOs).

Allen

{That was the last I heard on this topic from Colin Meyn, but suddenly, a few weeks ago, someone (the Editor-in-Chief?) at the Daily remembered that the most burning issue in Cambodia has been ignored for the last 30 months:}

Thu, 14 Jul 2016 15:38:10

Hi Allen,

I’m a reporter with the Cambodia Daily writing a story about Westerners with sympathetic views of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the current government.

A few questions:

  • What initially brought you to Cambodia?
  • I understand you’ve done some work for the government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit now and then. What is your current relationship with government?
  • You’ve defended Hun Sen and the government from critical voices on your blog, but do you actively support the prime minister and the government {“actively support”? Even though not a citizen, do I vote for the CPP – along with all those Vietnamese troops?}? If so, why do you think he’s been an effective leader?
  • Why do you think that, after the murder of Kem Ley on Sunday, many Cambodians on Facebook/in the crowds gathered there voiced skepticism that the case will be thoroughly investigated {Isn’t this good? The Daily, which must be on the borderline of bankruptcy, can’t afford to send journalists out into the street to ask people what they think, so I should do it for them}?
  • You’ve held left-leaning political views for some time. {Thank you so much for telling me what I think.} Hun Sen and the CPP have embraced capitalism. Do you think that switch has been good for the country?

Best,

Ben

On Fri, Jul 15, 2016 at 12:31 PM, Allen Myers wrote:

Hi Ben,

Before I consider my answers to your questions, I need to establish the context in which they might appear.

Is the Daily also planning a story about Westerners with critical views of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the current government? If so, will the two stories (sympathetic/critical) appear at the same time (i.e. in the same issue or in comparable consecutive issues)?

Is the Daily also planning a story about Westerners who are critical of some government actions/policies and sympathetic to others? If so, will that article appear at the same time as the other two? How will it be decided in which article to include someone who supports some aspects of the government and criticises others?

Regards,

Allen

Fri, 15 Jul 2016 14:30:20

Hi Allen,

I’m writing this piece in isolation. As you’ve mentioned before, we cover Westerners and Western-funded organizations who speak out against the government very regularly. Westerners who hold even mildly sympathetic views of government aren’t often quoted and are likely to be more of a novelty to our readers. I’m genuinely interested in their rationale, since I haven’t met any Westerners who come from that school of thought.

And no, it’s not necessarily people who believe everything the government does is great. I spoke to [name withheld by me, out of a regard for privacy that Ben Paviour seems not to share], for example, who admires some of Hun Sen’s work but is critical on issues relating to ethnic minorities and other areas.

Best,

Ben

On Fri, Jul 15, 2016 at 10:17 PM, Allen Myers wrote:

Hi Ben,
I agree that the Daily is more likely to quote critics than supporters of government actions. But the only way to overcome that imbalance is to change that practice. Running a story about people who you classify as sympathetic to the government and changing nothing else in the Daily’s reporting would only conceal the imbalance.

My views on events in Cambodia are expressed on my blog and in letters I send to the Daily or other newspapers. Thank you for the opportunity to be quoted in your article, but I prefer to let my writing speak for me rather than appearing in an article about a “school of thought” with whose other members I would probably have many differences.

Regards,

Allen

Mon, 18 Jul 2016 10:38:18

Hi Allen,

Your writing makes your position on bodies that you see as critical of the government very clear. The item that gets very scant attention in your pieces is your position on the government itself. If you have pieces that speak to your position on the practices and policies of government (rather than reaction to the reaction to them), please send them my way.

Otherwise, I still have two lingering questions:

  • In what capacity do you work for government, if at all? {I have not counted the number of times Daily “reporters” have asked me this question in this exchange. The real meaning of the question seems to be: “How can you disagree with me if you aren’t being paid to do so?”}
  • What has the current regime achieved, and where has it fallen short?

Best,

Ben

On Tue, Jul 19, 2016 at 9:47 AM, Allen Myers wrote:

Hi Ben,

I have a lot of opinions about a lot of things that I have never posted on my blog or written magazine or newspaper articles about. I believe this is a fairly normal situation for most human beings, so I do not understand why you find it strange that I have not written much on a topic that you are interested in.

As for the two specific questions that conclude your message:

1. I do not “work for” the government in any normal sense of the phrase. I have helped people in the Press and Quick Reaction Unit from time to time by correcting the English of various releases. This is voluntary, unpaid, assistance, which I have also done occasionally for other individuals.

2. A history of Cambodia since 1979 would undoubtedly be of interest, but I do not have the knowledge or time to produce it.

This is my third response to you. I hope you will have gathered by now that I do not wish to try to present my views to the public through the article you are planning to write. My initial disinclination was of course multiplied when I learned that you were approaching members of my family on the assumption that they must have the same opinions I have.

Allen

{In the last paragraph of the previous message, “members of my family” refers to the following message that Paviour sent to someone related to me on 15 July:

Hi [name withheld],

I’m a reporter with The Cambodia Daily writing a story about expats who have a sympathetic view of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government.

A few questions for you:

Do you think that the prime minister is a good leader? An effective one? And if so, what makes you feel that way?

why do you think foreign press often take a critical view of the prime minister and the government?

Has your opinion on these issues changed at all over the years? Why?

Best,

Ben

This relative denies ever having publicly expressed a position either sympathetic to or critical of the government. Paviour must know better than the person concerned: perhaps Paviour is channelling the late Senator Joe McCarthy.}

Mon, 8 Aug 2016 14:11:14

Hi Allen,

The piece has shifted focus to profile you and Helen Jarvis, particularly exploring your ideological positions as well as relationship to government. In the admittedly unlikely chance you are willing, I have a few more questions:

  • How did you all meet?
  • Do you identify as a Trotskyist?
  • What is your motivation for writing so many letters to the editor?

Best,

Ben


On Tue, Aug 9, 2016 at 9:28 PM, wrote:

Ben,
Responses to your questions:

Question 1: This is incomprehensible. Who or what does “you all” refer to?

Question 2: No.

Question 3: Your wording – “so many letters” – clearly implies that there is something odd or improper about writing more than some unspecified number of letters to the editor. That attitude seems at odds with the Daily’s frequently published appeal to readers to “email your letter”. Aside from that generalised appeal, I have several times received personal requests from your Editor-in-Chief to send letters to the Daily. If he now feels that I send too many, he can inform me, and of course I will stop sending them.

In regard to your “shifted focus”, this is far from the first shift since Colin Meyn first mounted this hobby horse two and a half years ago. That you have now shifted from pestering my [relative] to pestering my wife doesn’t say much for your, or the Daily’s, journalistic standards. My letters and comments on my blog are my own, not the product of a committee.

Your procedure reminds me of a criticism of an American poet that I read many years ago: that he didn’t understand the difference between having to write a poem and having a poem to write.

Allen

Thu, 11 Aug 2016 11:58:25

Hi Allen,

Sorry to hear you feel that way about the piece. It’s customary practice in journalism to email sources with questions. I do hope you’ll continue sending letters, as I enjoy reading them and they enliven debate.

We’re running the story tomorrow. Do you have any photos of you and Ms. Jarvis that you can share?

Best,

Ben

Thu, 11 Aug 2016, 10:20

Ben,

Thank you for your information about journalistic practice, even though I didn’t really feel the need for it, since I have been working as a journalist for several decades longer than you have been alive.

I am glad that you enjoy my letters. Unfortunately, this seems to apply only to the letters that are printed in the Daily: you appear not to have read my last emailed letter to you with any attention, which a journalist who is questioning “sources” really ought to do. For instance, you have not attempted to clarify my query regarding the meaning of your incomprehensible question about “you all”.

Also, if you re-read my message (or read it for the first time?), you will see that I did not object to you asking questions of relevant people, but to your shifty focusing of your “story” and the people you bother with it.

Allen

Posted in Ben Paviour, Cambodia Daily, Colin Meyn, journalism | Leave a comment

Global Witness and the language of deception

As the previous post on this blog noted, most media uncritically accepted the claims of Global Witness’ report Hostile Takeover to “link” Hun Sen’s family to companies with a total registered capital of $201 million, when in fact the report documents ownership only of $15.8 million by Hun Sen’s extended family and of $31.4 million by two of his children’s in-laws. It all hinges on exactly what GW means by “link” – something it never explains.

That is far from the only instance of the report playing fast and loose with words. Under the heading “Key Findings”, on page 4, GW declares: Hun Sen’s immediate family has registered interests in 114 private domestic companies with listed capital of more than US$200 million”. Aside from the fact that none of the companies have any listed capital, and that “registered interests” appears to be a deliberate attempt to conflate an undefined connection such as membership on a board of directors with ownership of a company’s registered capital, GW here engages in a further major falsehood.

Probably not a lot of readers of GW’s report paged down to the endnote attached to Hun Sen’s immediate family”. Those of us who did jump from page 4 to the fine print on page 42 discovered that GW was using “immediate family” to mean something quite different from what the rest of the English-speaking world normally means by the term. The endnote says: “This [Hun Sen’s immediate family’] comprises 21 members of the family, including three of Hun Sen’s children, all five of his children-in-law and numerous members of his extended family, including his younger sister and some of his nieces and nephews and their spouses”. (My italics.)

In English, “immediate family”, according to Wikipedia, “normally includes a person’s parents, spouses, siblings, children”.

Members of an extended family are more distantly related. In normal usage, nieces and nephews are extended family, not immediate family. Their spouses would generally not be considered family at all – but GW claims that they are “immediate family”!

GW defines as part of Hun Sen’s “immediate family” two people who are only the mother-in-law and brother-in-law of two of his children – who in most definitions would not be included even in “extended family”. And it is no coincidence that these two individuals own two-thirds of all the registered capital that GW is able to establish as belonging to individuals named in its table.

GW also includes in the “immediate family” one of Hun Sen’s cousins and the latter’s now divorced wife. Since these two are “linked” between them to only five companies with a total of only $25,000 in registered capital, perhaps they were included mainly to bulk up the membership of the “huge network” that GW claims to have uncovered.

GW wants to portray a family that, octopus-like, has the entire economy in its grip. But that requires some numbers of people, and GW could find only 17 or 18 people in Hun Sen’s extended family who had some “link” to a business. So GW simply falsified things, calling children’s in-laws, a cousin and an ex-in-law “immediate family”.

And there is more misrepresentation in Hostile Takeover. While GW’s text and its Annex 1 table claim that the Cambodian economy is dominated by 21 individuals, elsewhere in the report the “network” is allowed to expand. On pages 16-17, GW presents an “infographic” (what lesser mortals call a diagram) which “shows all of the Cambodian companies that members of the Hun family have interests in”. But in reality, the diagram is not intended to tell the reader anything about the companies, whose names appear in very small print. What is most visible (in red print) are the names of near and distant relatives and in-laws, connected to each other by lines and arrows. And just in case readers are too stupid to understand that this diagram is meant to present a picture of the “network” rather than what the caption says it presents, a photograph of the Prime Minister is at the centre of the web.

Curiously, the number of individual names in the web is 27, while the number in Annex 1’s list of people “linked to” or “interested in” the various companies is 21. In the “infographic” that claims to show companies that members of Hun Sen’s family “have interests in”, GW includes six people for whom no business interests are listed. What are they doing in the diagram?

Causing problems for Global Witness, that’s what. Two of the six are Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, H.E. Bun Rany Hun Sen. That’s right: at the very centre of GW’s picture of a vast network controlling the Cambodian economy are two people who have no “links to” or “interests in” private businesses that GW could find. It seems to me like a strange way to build a business empire, but then I don’t have an MBA.

Another two extraneous people in the “infographic” are two sons of Hun Sen and Bun Rany: Hun Manet and Hun Many. They also have no business “interests” or “links”, according to GW. In the same category are Hun Sen’s brother Hun Neng and the latter’s son Hun Seang Heng. It appears that the “empire” avoids nepotism: being immediate or extended family of the Prime Minister doesn’t get you automatic membership, but ex-spouses of cousins are given crucial roles.

When preparing the “infographic”, someone at GW must have begun to worry that “linked to” and “interests in” were getting overworked – readers might begin to wonder: What do these repeated phrases really mean? Clearly, it was time to find another term that sounds like it has something to do with evidence. And so, the “infographic” tells us that 21 of the 27 individuals named in it are “affiliated to” various companies.

The Oxford online dictionary says that “affiliated” means: “(Of a subsidiary group or a person) officially attached or connected to an organization”, and the dictionary gives as examples: “affiliated union members” and “Microsoft and its affiliated companies”.

So, the literal meaning of the words in GW’s diagram is that the listed businesses have control of the 21 listed individuals. How did GW come to write such an absurdity?

It happened because GW wants to give unwary readers (especially journalists) the belief that the 21 people it names have ownership of $201 million in businesses – but if it said directly, “They own businesses worth $201 million”, the lie could quickly be disproved. So GW chose some substitute terms that seemed vague enough to avoid convicting it of an outright lie but still meaningful enough to imply control. Unfortunately for GW but fortunately for explaining what is really going on, it blundered when it chose “affiliated to”.

A concise example of GW’s deliberate sloppiness about its accusations appears on page 13 of the report. It declares: “Here is an overview of some of the international and domestic

companies that Hun Mana has interests in or is affiliated to”. Having interests in something means that you own part of it. Being affiliated to it means it owns you. GW makes the opposing ideas indistinguishable. Rightly so: in GW’s usage, both mean: “We think there’s some kind of connection, but we don’t know what it is and don’t have any evidence”.

The “overview” is also revealing of GW’s methods. All it consists of is the logos of 15 or 16 companies that GW says are Hun Mana’s interest or affiliation. They include IBM Lenovo, Nokia, Procter & Gamble, Honda, Visa and Unilever. Wow! Hun Mana must be as rich as Bill Gates or George Soros! Except that Hun Mana’s interest/affiliation with these international giants consists in two facts. She is part owner of a company that partners with BM Lenovo to distribute Nokia products, and she is the majority shareholder in an advertising agency that has placed ads for these companies. Not quite so impressive as half a page of logos, is it?

Without going into tedious detail, it should also be noted that Hostile Takeover repeatedly disparages members of Hun Sen’s family with accusations that are too imprecise to be tested. A quick list of the words GW uses as a basis for accusations includes “rumoured, alleged, reportedly, accused, considered, widely considered, suspected, said to be”. When the report cites a source for one of these rumours or suspicions, it is usually a biased press release by Human Rights Watch.

To sum up, GW’s report makes accusations for which it lacks evidence, and it therefore substitutes deliberately ambiguous language and/or outright falsehoods. Look again, phrase by phrase, at GW’s “key finding” cited at the start of this article: Hun Sen’s immediate family [WRONG] has registered interests [DELIBERATE AMBIGUITY] in 114 private domestic companies with listed capital [WRONG] of more than US$200 million [WRONG]”.

Posted in Bun Rany Hun Sen, Cambodia, Global Witness, Hostile Takeover, Hun Mana, Hun Sen | Leave a comment

Global Witness’ flawed report on Hun Sen’s family

[Published by the Khmer Times on 19 July 2016.]

The Global Witness report Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family was provided well in advance to selected media, to allow them to describe it without rushing.

This would also have been an opportunity for journalists to check on the reliability and accuracy of the report, and to consider whether its charges were sufficiently documented. Unfortunately, it does not appear that reporters for any of the English-language Cambodian papers used that opportunity.

Contrary to most of the publicity surrounding it, the report does not at all prove the existence of “vast holdings” or a “business empire” belonging to Hun Sen’s family.

Capital confusion

Global Witness (GW) provides a table (Annex 1) citing the registered capital of companies with which relatives of Hun Sen have some connection. The total registered capital of these companies (aside from 16 of the 114, for which GW could find no information) was something over $200 million.

That provided a handy figure for biased and/or lazy journalists to cite as a minimum for the wealth that Hun Sen’s family had supposedly accumulated. But it’s nonsense.

The first error, which necessarily raises doubts about the overall competence of GW’s researchers, is that they don’t understand the difference between listed capital and registered capital. Indeed, they do not even seem to recognise that there is a difference.

The listed value of a company is the value of one of the company’s shares on the country’s stock exchange, multiplied by the number of such shares. So, if corporation A’s shares are selling for $15 and there are one million A shares in existence, the listed capital value of the company is $15 million. This is also often referred to as a corporation’s “market capitalisation”.

The GW report, and the numerous media reports mindlessly repeating it, refer frequently to the “listed share value” of companies “linked” to members of the Hun family. This is simply impossible.

The Cambodian stock exchange is very new, and there are only three listed companies in Cambodia: the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port, Grand Twins International (Cambodia) Plc and the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority. The “listed share value” of the companies cited in the GW report does not exist (unless the company is listed on Wall Street or some other foreign stock exchange). GW doesn’t understand what it is talking about.

What does exist, and what the GW report sometimes mentions as though it were the same thing, is the registered capital of a company, also called the authorised capital. In Cambodia, the registered capital is the value of the shares a company can issue, which must be no more than the amount invested by the shareholder(s).

As time passes, it is quite possible for the actual value of a company to diverge from the value of its registered capital because of favourable or unfavourable events. (This happens to listed capital only rarely over the long term, because a company’s share price tends to rise or fall with its successes or setbacks.)

If a registered company is doing well, its owners may decide to increase its registered capital, which they can do, for example, by reinvesting some of the company’s profits; they can then sell some or all of the shares corresponding to the increased capital.

But if a company is losing money, there is no incentive for the owners to reduce the registered capital: doing so would only reduce their chances of recovering their investment.

Its registered capital therefore doesn’t tell us much about how well or poorly a company is doing. A company may really be worth either more or less than its registered capital. But there are likely to be more companies that are worth less than their registered capital than there are companies worth more than their registered capital.

The largest item in GW’s claimed “$200 million empire” is the (partial) ownership by Men Pheakdey of the D&M Special Economic Zone in Bavet. She’s described as mother-in-law of two of the prime minister’s children, which hardly qualifies her as a “Hun family member”. The company is listed in the report as having a value of $52 million – that is, more than one-fourth of the entire “empire”.

The company and its registered capital were recorded in 2007. Following on the internet what happened after that was difficult, which may be why GW didn’t bother. I tried for a bit longer and developed a strong suspicion that the D&M SEZ doesn’t actually exist as anything more than legal permission to create an SEZ on a designated piece of land. After further, non-internet, inquiries, it emerges that the D&M SEZ is still only someone’s dream. D&M may still have a legal permission and some land, but those could not possibly be worth more than a fraction of the $52 million registered capital.* Yet the full $52 million still shows up in the report’s table.

Spreading illusions

A second major flaw in GW’s report is that its figures for the registered capital owned by members of the Hun family are grossly exaggerated. As in most spreadsheets, these figures are totalled at the bottom, coming to $201,223,668. This is the number on which most of the media coverage of “Hun family wealth” is based. But its only real meaning is that this is the maximum possible ownership by the people listed if they owned totally all the companies listed – which of course they don’t.

For instance, Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana is described as a shareholder in Viettel, the Vietnamese company that owns Metfone. The registered capital of Viettel, entered in GW’s table, is $44,877,168. So the $44.9 million value of Viettel appears, to the unwary, as part of the supposed $200 million of Hun Sen’s family. Thus the Phnom Penh Post article writes of “Mana’s 6 per cent stake – valued at $44 million – in Viettel Cambodia”.

But the Post has been misled by the way GW presents its figures. She has only a 6 per cent shareholding. Six per cent of 44.9 million is approximately 2.7 million, not 44 million. The Hun family’s supposed fortune has just decreased by $42 million. This is only the largest such example.

In fact, GW identifies only 16 companies of which it claims to know both the company’s registered capital and the size of the shareholding of a member of the Hun family. Here are the figures:

Investments by prime minister’s extended family, including immediate in-laws, where both percentage shares and registered capital of companies are documented by Global Witness. Percentage shares and capital held by in-laws of children are at bottom of table.

Person

Company (percentage held)

Registered

capital

Share of registered capital

1. Sok Puthyvuth (SIL)

Soma Energy (100%)

10,000,000

10,000,000

2. Hun Mana (daughter)

Viettel (6%)

44,877,168

2,692,630

Kampuchea Thmey (100%)

5000

5000

Moon Media (51%)

5000

2550

Bayon CM Organizer (25%)

5000

1250

Sub-total for Hun Mana

2,701,430

3. Hun Kimleng (niece)

Eastern Cambodia Int’l Investment (49%)

5,000,000

2,450,000

Worldwide Investment Corp (100%)

25,000

25,000

HD Rock Cafe & Shop (75%)

5000

3750

Sub-total for Hun Kimleng:

2,478,750

4. Hun Seng Ny (sister)

Attwood Investment Group (50%)

1,000,000

500,000

5. Hun Maly (daughter)

Decampharma (10%)

50,000

5000

6. Yim Chhay Lin (DIL)

Sovannaphum Mine Exploration & Development (50%)

10,000

5000

7. Pich Chanmony (DIL)

Brands Management (5%)

20,000

1000

8. Hun Chea (nephew)

PSZ Trading (10%)

5000

500

TOTAL

61,007,168

15,691,680

In-laws of children

1. Men Pheakdey

(MIL of two children)

D&M Bavet SEZ Co (60%)

52,000,000

31,200,000

CVI Resorts (30%)

5000

1500

2. Yim Leang

(brother-in-law of son)

Khum Sea Import Export Co (10 %)

2,000,000

200,000

TOTAL

54,005,000

31,401,500

As can be seen, by listing the full registered capital rather than the part owned by a family member or in-laws of Hun Sen’s children, GW overstates the value of their holdings in these 16 companies by almost $68 million. (And that is without any deduction for the likely reduced value of the D&M SEZ.) GW’s report doesn’t document the value of any further holdings by the Hun Sen family or its more distant in-laws.

GW argues that an additional 30 companies should be regarded as belonging wholly to the family, because they were registered as a “single member private limited company”, which means they are entirely owned by one person. GW says: “Hun family members are listed as company directors or chairs in all 30 of these cases, therefore it is highly likely that a member of the family is the sole owner of the majority, if not all, of these companies”.

That seems a reasonable deduction, but GW seems reluctant to draw any further conclusions, or allow readers to do so. GW’s table, which is labelled “Our Findings in Full”, doesn’t really report everything GW knows, because it does not identify those 30 companies. Since it is able to count them, GW obviously knows which companies have a single owner, but it doesn’t tell the reader. I can think of a logical reason for this strange lapse, but it doesn’t reflect well on GW.

If GW’s research found that a member of the Hun family chaired a single-owner company that had a registered capital of $1 million, or $5 million, or $10 million, it would have been much more evidence of family wealth than most things in the report: surely GW would have told us.

That it didn’t identify any of the 30 companies suggests that most or all of them are not very big. And of the companies listed in Annex 1 about which the only information is the name of the chair or director and the registered capital, more than 30 have a registered capital of only $1000 to $5000.

So, if we give GW the benefit of the doubt and say that members of the family own 30 companies, each with a registered capital of $5000, that adds $150,000 to the total of the family’s holdings. Adding up the numbers, we get a shareholding of the Hun Sen family more or less documented by GW as $15.84 million. Or, people who are willing to be held responsible for the actions of their own children’s in-laws, can argue that the total is $47.24 million. Both numbers are a long way from the trumpeted $201 million.

Both are also a very small percentage of Cambodia’s GDP of more than $18 billion. It is nonsense for GW to say that either amount “underpins the Cambodian economy” or amounts to “significant control across most of its lucrative industries”.

_____

* A Google search for land offered for sale in the neighbourhood of Bavet indicates an asking price of around $60,000 per hectare. D&M owns 118 hectares, so its land would be worth approximately $7.08 million.

Posted in Cambodia, Global Witness, Hostile Takeover, Hun Mana, Hun Sen | Leave a comment

US Supreme Court replacement?

[Published by the Cambodia Daily on July 14, 2006, under the heading “Monitor Should Recuse Herself From Debate on US Senate Bill”.]

It appears that the political dispute about whether the U.S. Senate should approve President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy is unnecessary.

Indeed, the court itself is unnecessary, as we have Heather Ryan – “Tribunal Is Tainted by Political Interference, but Not From US” (July 12) – to tell us the correct “interpretation” of US legislation.

While attorney Michael Karnavas and others who read the US Senate Appropriations Committee’s bill may see it as a threat to withhold funds unless Meas Muth is charged and tried in Case 003 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Ms. Ryan points out that it really means something quite different than what it says. No wonder she calls the bill “confusing and ambiguous.”

However, it does seem strange that Ms. Ryan, as a consultant to the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), has not recused herself from the debate. After the co-investigating judges who originally investigated Case 003 had decided that it lay outside the court’s jurisdiction, it was OSJI and friends who obtained confidential information about the decision and then mounted a public campaign against the international co-investigating judge, which drove him to resign before the case could be formally closed.

Posted in Case 003, Heather Ryan, Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Meas Muth, Michael Karnavas, Open Society Justice Initiative | Leave a comment