Cambodian elections: Elizabeth Becker gets nearly everything wrong

When Elizabeth Becker was a New York Times correspondent, she presumably had an editor, who would ask for clarification of ambiguous or confusing formulations, and ask for evidence when assertions were made without evidence being provided. Unfortunately, YaleGlobal Online appears not to subject its articles to that kind of scrutiny, at least to judge from Becker’s recent piece there (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/cambodians-refuse-accept-rigged-elections).

Becker’s article is of a quality that tempts one to say: Oh, just ignore it; it will sink under its own lack of weight. But that would probably be overoptimistic. Articles by a “name” who attacks the Cambodian government are very frequently reprinted in the local English-language print newspapers. Even more insidiously, the “facts” contained in such articles tend to be picked up in good faith by subsequent reporters, who repeat them and/or allow their perception of current events to be coloured by them. So it may be useful to point out some factual errors in Becker’s account of recent history.

KR trials: wrong

One of the most grotesque is the assertion that the tribunal trying former Khmer Rouge leaders was “[c]reated by the United Nations in partnership with a reluctant Cambodian government”. In the real Cambodia, the reluctance to create the KR tribunal was solely on the part of the UN Office of Legal Affairs. In 2002, it pulled out of the negotiations to create the tribunal, giving the Cambodian government 15 minutes’ notice, at night, on a weekend.

The Cambodian government then went on a year-long diplomatic campaign to pressure the UN back into the process, which finally succeeded through a vote of the UN General Assembly. If that was “reluctance” as a NYT editor might have asked Becker – what would an “enthusiastic” or “determined” Cambodian government have done?

At first glance, the establishment of the KR tribunal a decade ago might not seem terribly relevant to views about the Cambodian national election in July. But Becker brought up the topic, and did so for a reason. The reason is to prejudice the uninformed reader, so that the latter will accept Becker’s other assertions, in particular that the government “rigged” the recent election. The idea is that Hun Sen has always been a villain, so of course you’d expect him to steal the election.

1993: wrong

Becker carries this demonising of Hun Sen all the way back to 1993. After the CPP came second in the United Nations-organised elections, she asserts, “… Hun Sen’s allies threatened a military coup. UN representatives gave in and forced Ranariddh into a power-sharing agreement, an example that set the tone for Hun Sen’s violent bullying since.”

Very dramatic but very untrue. If anybody had threatened a coup at the time, they would have been told to stop consuming hallucinogens. The idea that the Cambodian armed forces, already stretched in attempting to contain the Khmer Rouge, could have overcome the certain opposition of the UNTAC armed forces to any coup, is fantasy.

More importantly, Ranariddh didn’t need to be “forced” into the coalition that was eventually established. Before the election, Ranariddh and Hun Sen had already agreed that they would form a coalition if neither of their parties won a majority of seats.* The rules for adopting the new constitution that was to be written by the Constituent Assembly also all but guaranteed a coalition arrangement, since a two-thirds majority was requited to approve the constitution. The CPP didn’t need to threaten anything – except voting “no” on any constitution.

NGO law: wrong

Becker asserts that “two years ago … then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton … successfully protested Hun Sen government’s attempt to pass a law that would have blocked nongovernmental organizations”. She doesn’t tell the reader what NGOs would have been “blocked” from doing by the law. Nor does she provide any details about Hillary Clinton’s supposed protest. (In fact, there is not a single source cited for any of Becker’s “facts”.) I wasn’t able to find any record of it in a Google search, but it is conceivable that Clinton did file a protest. But, if so, she was being a bit tardy: the law has been under consideration and consultation with NGOs since 2003; the government was not about to trample over the rights of NGOs two years ago or at any other time.

Two years ago, Becker involved herself in a campaign by a minority of Cambodian NGOs to exempt themselves from any regulation by the Cambodian state. Readers who want to check the details of her misrepresentations of the law, which in its various versions would not “block” NGOs from anything except possibly defrauding people, are referred to two articles I wrote at the time, at https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/2011-2/elizabeth-becker-and-the-campaign-to-put-ngos-above-the-law/ and https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/2011-2/elizabeth-beckers-evasive-response/.

But a different aspect of Becker’s comments on NGOs is worthy of consideration. She writes: “Without Clinton’s intervention, those NGOs may [sic] well have been mute in the election. Instead, they were raucous. One standout campaign video featured trucks transporting huge loads of illegally cut timber under the corrupt protection of the Hun Sen government, narrated by the hypnotic music of a Cambodian rap singer.”

Becker was apparently too hypnotised by the rap singer to think about the implications of what she wrote. Most Cambodian NGOs rely to a significant extent on funding from foreign donors. If some of these NGOs have really gone beyond their mandates as Becker suggests (I don’t know of any NGO that proclaims its purpose as intervening in elections on behalf of the opposition), then they have become a means to funnel foreign money and influence into Cambodian elections. Becker would know that in the “democratic” United States, where she lives, behaviour like that can get you jailed, but she thinks it should be a norm – perhaps defended by the US secretary of state – in “authoritarian” Cambodia.

2013 campaign: wrong

At the risk of belabouring the obvious, I will cite just one more proof of the folly of trying to analyse Cambodian political events from Washington. Becker writes: “In his previous campaigns, Hun Sen frightened the population by claiming that without him the Khmer Rouge would return, bringing chaos and civil war. That didn’t work this time.”

In the real Cambodia, that argument “didn’t work this time” because it wasn’t used. The CPP is even more aware than Becker of Cambodian demographics and the fact that a majority of the Cambodian population are too young to have any memory of the Khmer Rouge. The CPP certainly cited the ending of the Khmer Rouge insurgency as one of its achievements, but it did not say that a CPP defeat at the ballot box would somehow revive the KR.

For the record, both sides in this campaign mentioned “civil war”. Hun Sen said that this would be the result if the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) won the election and tried to prosecute members of the current government on spurious charges of having been responsible leaders of the KR. And Sam Rainsy, in a statement released on 8 June, declared, “Prime Minister Hun Sen has created the preconditions for a civil war”.

Vote rigging’: wrong

As noted, the function of Becker’s numerous factual errors is to demonise Hun Sen so that the reader will accept her assertions about the recent election without asking for evidence. But the assertions are so far from reality that it becomes impossible for Becker to express them coherently. For example, she says that the elections were supposed to keep Hun Sen at the head of the government, but: “Instead, the flagrant vote rigging failed, and the opposition may even have won.”

Becker’s rhetoric overwhelms any logic. If “vote rigging” to maintain the CPP in power had failed, that would mean that the National Election Committee reported a victory for the opposition, and Sam Rainsy would now be prime minister. Since that has not happened, if follows that, if the CPP had rigged the vote, its rigging would be a success, not a failure.

The second clause of Becker’s sentence adds still more confusion by contradicting the first clause: she says the opposition “may” have won, which also means that it may not have won. But if it is possible that the CPP really won the election, then it is also possible that the vote was not rigged, even though Becker calls this rigging “flagrant”, which means that it was glaring or obvious, something that just about anyone could see.

Becker’s tangle of self-contradiction stems from the opposition CNRP, whose claims she is trying to repeat without quite taking responsibility for them. The problem is that the CNRP refuses to say where it thinks the vote was “rigged”. As I have pointed out previously (see the blog post before this one), shortly after the election, CNRP official Son Chhay told Phnom Penh Post reporters the names of seven provinces where it thought it had been cheated out of a total of eight National Assembly seats. Son Chhay also promised to provide publicly the details of the alleged cheating in no more than two weeks. It is now nearly three months since the election, and there are still no details, no specifics. If the “independent investigation” that the CNRP calls for were established, what could it investigate – “We were cheated somewhere somehow: investigate that”?

The reason that the CNRP cannot provide any specifics is that specifics can be checked, and the specifics don’t support the CNRP. As is pointed out in the NEC’s White Paper on the election, at every stage of the vote counting, representatives of the CNRP were present and signed the relevant forms indicating that the count had been done properly and accurately. The claim that the vote was rigged has no basis, and the CNRP leaders’ behaviour indicates that they know this.

Furthermore, Comfrel – one of the anti-government NGOs that Hillary Clinton supposedly stopped Hun Sen from “blocking” – had representatives in every polling station, and they reported an overall result almost identical to the official one.

Becker’s assertions regarding previous elections also indicate that she is incapable of thinking about Cambodia outside parameters defined, however illogically, by the opposition. “Over the years”, she writes, “foreign election monitors couldn’t stop the vote rigging”. The way that most rational people would refer to that situation is rather: “Over the years, foreign election monitors didn’t report significant vote rigging”. The suggestion that foreign monitors observed vote rigging and tried, unsuccessfully, to stop it, is pure invention.

Becker, like the opposition, argues that if monitors don’t report vote rigging, then there is something wrong with the monitors. It’s rather like the prosecutor in a criminal trial telling the judge: “Yes, ten witnesses put the defendant far from the scene at the time of the crime. But I know the defendant is guilty, so you should reject the testimony of the witnesses.” (In an effort to avoid troublesome witnesses, Sam Rainsy spent a considerable part of last year going around the world lobbying foreign governments and organisations not to send observers for this year’s election.)

Curiouser and curiouser

There is a curious aspect of Becker’s article that may have a rational explanation. Nowhere in the entire article does she mention the name of a single Cambodian organisation. The Cambodian People’s Party is simply “Hun Sen’s party”. FUNCINPEC becomes “the party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh”. The CNRP is “the opposition”. The National Election Committee doesn’t get a mention in any form. It all makes the recent election sound like a medieval combat between two individual “champions”: Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy.

I would suggest that the reason for this is propagandistic. It is much easier to demonise an individual than an organisation: readers will be more likely to believe that a single person is nothing but evil than to believe that about a party with thousands and thousands of members. Thus the CPP becomes “Hun Sen’s party”. But if you do that, you have to do it for everyone, or you reveal what you’re up to: you can’t refer to a contest between “the Cambodian National Rescue Party and Hun Sen’s party”. So all Cambodian organisations have to be reduced to the names of an individual.

Except in one case. After describing the failure of the election strategy that Hun Sen didn’t use, Becker continues: “Others, in the opposition, also tried to drag up old prejudices, blaming Cambodia’s problems on its old rival, neighboring Vietnam. That racism also didn’t work.”**

Isn’t this odd? Whereas previously Becker has personalised all the events, identifying them with Hun Sen or Sam Rainsy or Prince Ranariddh, the racism in the opposition has no name attached: it is the fault only of “others”. Why is this? Couldn’t Becker’s sources tell her the names of these “others”?

Readers in Cambodia already know the most important of the names (there are many). At the top of the list are Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the leader and deputy leader of the CNRP. Their incitement of racism was so much more of a feature in the 2013 campaign that the English-language media, nearly all of which politely looked the other way when it arose previously, reported some of it this time.

Becker further understates this racism when she says that the “others” blamed Vietnam for Cambodia’s problems. While they did that (for example, calling the Cambodian government a “Vietnamese puppet”), they also and even more so targeted the Vietnamese ethnic minority, who are Cambodian citizens.

Becker’s assertion that this racism “didn’t work” is even less supported by evidence than her other assertions. While there were no exit polls that asked voters why they voted as they did, there were a number of cases of mobs of CNRP supporters blocking anyone they thought looked “Vietnamese” from voting, and the accounts of CNRP rallies in both the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily make it clear that anti-Vietnamese sentiment was a major feature of those rallies. (One incident not widely reported a CNRP post-election march trashing and looting a major shop that the looters thought was Vietnamese-owned.)

Conclusion

Yale University ought to invest a little of its available funds in ensuring that articles published under its name have a great deal more rigour and credibility than this bit of nonsensical apologetics from Elizabeth Becker. Elizabeth Becker should stick to a relatively safe subject, such as tourism.

* 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.

** I have substituted for Becker’s missing editors by inserting the first two commas in this quotation; otherwise, Becker appears to say that Hen Sen is part of the opposition.

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