More US democracy for Cambodians

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 6 December 2013.]

Here we go again. And again. And yet again.

No one could possibly keep track of the number of times right-wing US politicians have issued commandments to Cambodians about how Cambodians ought to organise themselves.

How do they find the time to do it? There are only a total of 535 members of the US Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. There are more than 317 million US citizens whose welfare these Congresspeople have to look after, not to mention millions of more non-citizens whom they have to persecute and deport. That’s around 593,000 citizens per Congressperson, even if there were no overlap.

So if the average Congressperson never slept or ate or sent out dirty Facebook pictures or did anything else except think about the citizens they represent (not including the non-citizens they need to deport), that average Congressperson could, in one year, devote 53 seconds to each of his/her assigned citizens.

And yet, some Congresspeople, like Republican Ed Royce of California, still manage to make the time to study the economic and political situation of Cambodia, to learn its history, to read its constitution and its laws, to immerse themselves in its culture, to get to know its people, so that they can prescribe what Cambodians should do, confident that their ideas will solve all of Cambodia’s problems just as they have solved all the problems of the United States.

Actually, what I wrote above is not 100% accurate. The Congresspeople don’t quite do it all by themselves. They have regular payroll staff who help them keep track of the needs of their allotted 593,000 citizens. And for keeping track of places like Cambodia, they have people on a more irregular, but still substantial, payroll.

Congressperson Royce, according to an article in the 2 December Cambodia Daily, had the assistance of Kem Sokha, the deputy leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. The unbiased, objective information from Kem Sokha enabled Royce to declare that what Cambodia really needs is for Hun Sen to resign as prime minister.

If you think it strange that the leader of the party that won the election should not be prime minister, that’s because you don’t understand US democracy. At the Long Beach gathering where Royce spoke, Kem Sokha praised Royce because “he wants to see Cambodia have real democracy as US citizens have”.

In the real US democracy, Royce’s party, the Republican Party, has a solid majority of 234 out of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. It won these seats in the 2012 election by getting 46.9% of the nationwide vote. The Democrats, who received nearly 1.5 million more votes than the Republicans (48.3% of the total), got only 201 seats.

So it’s easy to see why a CNRP leader would look to the US Republican Party for inspiration. Like the Republicans, in the most recent election the CNRP came second, receiving fewer votes than the CPP. And since the election, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy have never stopped shouting that this minority of votes entitles them to a majority of seats in the National Assembly: if that’s how they do it in the US, we should do it here. Didn’t the US invent democracy, after all?

The CNRP deputy leader has other ties with the US Republican Party. He has been handsomely paid by it for his efforts to introduce US-style democracy into Cambodia. As the Cambodia Daily article noted, Kem Sokha was given $450,000 by the International Republican Institute when he set up the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in 2002. A member of the IRI’s board told a Congressional committee in 2004: “IRI has supported the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) since its inception in 2002”. In November 2004, IRI official Ron Abney told an interviewer that IRI funding for the CCHR in that year was around $900,000 (http://nearovipen.tripod.com/cambo36.html). In the Long Beach event, Sokha said he had “personally been financially supported by the American government to extend democracy for more than five years”.

I haven’t seen figures for the amount of funding in the other years, but clearly US-style democracy doesn’t come cheaply. If it weren’t for US generosity, Cambodians probably couldn’t afford it.

In 2007, Kem Sokha decided to return – openly – to politics, and he resigned as president of the CCHR. But there is something a little odd about the timing. Sokha set up the CCHR in November 2002, and he resigned from it in March 2007. That is a period of less than four and a half years. Yet Sokha said he was “financially supported by the American government” (via the IRI) for more than five years. That strongly suggests that some of his support was delivered before and/or after he headed the CCHR – when he was a Funcinpec senator or the leader of the Human Rights Party.

Of course, Cambodia has no law against political parties accepting donations from foreigners. This may be an area where Cambodian democracy lags behind the US variety. In the US, politicians are forbidden to accept donations from foreigners, even if the donors weren’t given that money by their government. If it happens, both the donors and the receiving politicians can be jailed.

In fact, if a US politician retired from politics to set up an NGO called, say, “Good Things for America”, and this NGO received millions of dollars from foreign NGOs that were funded by foreign governments, and after a few years the politician returned to politics as head of a new party called “American Good Things Party”, it’s a safe bet that politician would face some probing and possibly embarrassing question from his local prosecutor. Maybe this is a case where Cambodia should imitate US democracy.

Oh, by the way: the California gathering at which Royce and Sokha revealed their hopes of exporting US-style democratic minority rule to Cambodia was a fundraising event for the CNRP.

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