Contorted logic to attack a neighbour

[This was sent on 23 September to the Thai Nation newspaper in response to an article by its editor, Tulsathit Taptim. It has not been published by the paper.]

Tulsathit Taptim’s “Let’s just condemn the coup and play soccer” (21 September) uses a gratuitous attack on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as a stick with which to beat Thai opponents of the 2006 Bangkok coup.

To the limited degree that his article has a coherent argument, it is that a friendly football match between Thai and Cambodian officials proves that Thais who opposed the military coup are not really democrats.

To buttress his absurd claim, Tulsathit resorts to further inventions. “Thai politicians who portray themselves as champions of democracy”, he writes, “hero-worship Hun Sen”. Thai democrats “adore” the “Phnom Penh strongman”. Why Thai democrats would look to Cambodia or any other country for inspiration isn’t explained. Does Tulsathit perhaps think Thailand lacks inspiring political leaders?

Tulsathit does not mention that the 1987 Amnesty International report alleging torture of political prisoners in Cambodia was compiled during a civil war, nor that all of AI’s accusations came from refugees on the Thai border —that is, from people under the political and military control of the forces fighting the government.

Aside from 24-year-old horror stories, Tulsathit uses rhetorical questions to imply that conditions in Cambodia are horrible, without taking responsibility for actually saying so: “I just asked a question”. Although Tulsathit is not interested in the answers, some readers may be, so I will try to answer them.

“How many independent websites has Hun Sen allowed in Cambodia?” There are thousands of websites in Cambodia, both commercial and non-commercial. Aside from government websites, they are all independent: even if it wanted to, the government could hardly have officials involved in determining the content of all of them.

“Did he [Hun Sen] ever stage a coup?” No, although lazy journalists are in the habit of describing the 1997 fighting between the Cambodian People’s Party and Funcinpec as a “coup”.

“Where are his political opponents now?” Some, from Funcinpec, are no longer opponents; they are now part of the coalition government. Other opponents are in the National Assembly, the Senate and commune councils, and living and working among their neighbours in villages, towns and cities around Cambodia. The question implies that anyone opposed to the government must be in prison. If Tulsathit knows of anyone he thinks was imprisoned merely for being politically opposed to the government, he should be specific.

“Can anti-government protesters pour blood at the gates of his house?” While there are frequent demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s residence, I know of no instance in which demonstrators have engaged in such unhygienic behaviour. Is Tulsathit suggesting that pouring blood is a form of political activity that ought to be generalised?

“Is Cambodia an NGO paradise?” The government has never claimed that Cambodia is a paradise for anyone. Like most elected governments, it describes its task as improving the situation of the entire population, not as creating a paradise for any specific group. Although it may not be a paradise for NGOs, Cambodia has more than 3000 of them, so it can’t be too difficult.

“Are the Cambodian armed forces democracy-lovers that stay away from politics and never let themselves become tools of politicians?” Cambodians members of the armed forces have the same right as other citizens to vote for political candidates. The only time that Cambodian armed forces overthrew a government was in 1970. That event was disastrous for the country, which is one reason that most Cambodians, including soldiers, believe that the armed forces should be controlled and directed by the elected government, rather than the other way around. Tulsathit’s disparaging reference to the armed forces being “tools” of politicians suggests that he prefers to have the military in charge.

Finally, calling Hun Sen a “dictator” violates normal usage, in which “dictator” refers to someone who takes control without electoral or other constitutional authority. Hun Sen has been elected Prime Minister repeatedly in internationally observed elections. Was there any instance in which Tulsathit referred to the leaders of the 2006 coup as “dictators”?

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