How the US interferes in Cambodia’s elections

An almost unnoticed reference to Cambodia in the Wikileaks release of US diplomatic documents four years ago recently caught my attention when I was googling another subject. It reveals an interesting picture of the US government’s “hands on” attempts to manipulate Cambodian political processes – elections in particular.

The document concerns a visit to Phnom Penh by Paul Grove in January 2008, a visit that the US embassy said “was well-timed as political parties begin gearing up for July national elections”.

Paul Grove was the International Republican Institute’s representative in Cambodia in 1994-96. His attitude towards Cambodia was described in an April 2005 report in the International Herald Tribune (now the International New York Times), which said that Grove’s “dislike of the current Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is ferocious”. Grove was then the staff director of the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. The article portrayed McConnell and Grove as the moving force behind a US law that prohibited US government contributions to funding the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

At the time of his 2008 visit, Grove was in essentially the same position on the US Senate committee, except that an intervening election had made Republicans a minority instead of a majority on the committee.

According to the cable, signed by then ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, Grove and committee staff visited Cambodia from January 12 to 14, 2008. He paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Hun Sen, and met with Kampong Cham pig farmers who had received business training in a USAID program. But the main focus was politics and the upcoming election.

Also in Kampong Cham, Grove met with provincial officials from Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party, who “made clear that politicking for the July 2008 national elections is already well underway”. According to Ambassador Mussomeli’s cable, Grove’s impressions were summed up in the subheading on this section: “Politics in Kampong Cham: SRP Up, FUNCINPEC Out”.

Presumably because of this evaluation, back in Phnom Penh, Grove visited the offices of the Sam Rainsy Party, but not of Funcinpec. In a conversation with Grove, according to the cable, Sam Rainsy “did not see FCP [Funcinpec] regaining its strength. In many places, the people are now turning to the SRP to solve their problems, he said. On former FCP leaders, he said Ranariddh was ‛too greedy’ and Sirivudh ‛too weak’ to make a difference. They are ‛princes without principle,’ he said. King Sihamoni was not involved in politics, as he was ‛too scared.’”

(That last remark makes one question the accuracy of Grove’s reports of his discussions. Sam Rainsy of course knows that Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, which means that King Sihamoni, by not being “involved in politics”, is only respecting the Constitution.)

Grove also reported that Sam Rainsy seemed to regard the trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders as mainly an opportunity for political point-scoring:

“On the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Rainsy said that he regretted many at the lower level who ‛acted with zeal’ were not being tried. He also noted that he was surprised to see the five KR leaders already detained and charged and thought they would not have been charged until after the July elections. The events of the KR era is [sic] embarrassing to the government and to China, he said, and SRP must make use of it.”

But the most important part of Grove’s visit, for the US, must have been a dinner hosted by Ambassador Mussomeli. The dinner guests, Mussomeli states, were “Grove’s former interlocutors”, that is, the people with whom he had discussed things during his 1994-96 assignment with the IRI. The invitation to the dinner would probably not have surprised many recipients, since the beginning of the cable notes that Grove “has maintained civil society contacts in Cambodia since that time”. Still, not all guests were equal: Sam Rainsy was invited to “a smaller, pre-dinner meeting with Grove”.

Judging from Mussomeli’s cable, most of the discussion at the dinner revolved around Cambodian politics and what might be done to reduce the “dominance” of the Cambodian People’s Party. When other subjects came up, they were dealt with in the context of how they might affect that project.

Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha were among the guests, but the cable noted, rather sadly, that “neither Rainsy nor Kem Sokha seemed interested in reaching out to the other. Conversation between the two was minimal, although Rainsy – addressing questions posed by civil society representatives – asserted that the plethora of small parties competing in the election divides the vote and benefits the CPP.”

Rainsy’s analysis seems to have convinced both Grove and Mussomeli, because the concluding section of the cable argues: “Unfortunately, [my emphasis] the various parties of the opposition devote significant time and energy to sniping at each other. In a country with a complex formula for allocating seats in the National Assembly and where personal animosities play a large role in party decisions … party sniping may leave a clear path for continued CPP dominance.”

The cable does not name all of the “former interlocutors” who were dinner guests. However, it seems that no official from Funcinpec was among them. And the guests appear to have shared a common goal, if not always a common analysis of how to get to it. Thus the cable several times refers to the guests as a collective: the “guests agreed”; the “guests also discussed”.

Only two other Cambodian guests were mentioned by name: “Theary Seng from the Center for Social Development (CSD) and Youk Chhang from the Documentation Center (DC-CAM) expressed the opinion that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC) is playing a crucial role in shifting peoples’ [sic] comfort with raising difficult subjects.”

The cable also reports that Grove received a report from a UNDP official on that organisation’s efforts to control the voters’ list for the upcoming election. For instance, “Aamir Arain noted that the UNDP had opted out of a Ministry of Interior (MOI) program to erase presumed ghost voters from the voter registration lists, noting that complaints had reduced the 650,000-plus names down to 635,000 names. He suspected at least 250,000 names slated to be erased were of eligible voters. He could not say how many of those 250,000 might be dual-registered and thus still have the right to cast a ballot on election day.”

(The opposition complains before and after every election that there are huge numbers of names on the voters’ list that should not be there. Here we see that UNDP was critical of, and didn’t want to be associated with, attempts to remove invalid names. So, between UNDP and the opposition, the government is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.)

UNDP also reported to Grove on its efforts to direct the government’s program of providing ID cards to citizens. Of particular interest here is UNDP’s boast of having arranged a change that benefitted a US company over Chinese companies:

“UNDP reviewed its ongoing efforts to get all eligible voters national ID cards by election day using U.S.-based Datacard company and high-technology identification software. UNDP has successfully moved the management of ID cards into the secure MOI compound, whereas before identities were in the private servers of private Chinese-owned companies.”

One wonders: if a staff delegation of the Chinese parliament had visited Phnom Penh in January 2008, what would UNDP officials have told them about UNDP’s activities in regard to the upcoming Cambodian election? Anything at all?

What does it mean?

We have only one cable among what must be many detailing the goals and practices of US diplomacy in Cambodia. This single document shows that the US government regards intervening in Cambodian politics as perfectly normal and acceptable; there is not a word in it that suggests that Grove’s interference was anything out of the ordinary. So, even though we have only one document, it suggests unmistakably that US officials would have attempted to manipulate as much as they could of the 2008 election, not just the January preliminaries, and elections before and after 2008 as well.

As is well known, the lack of collaboration between Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha that upset Grove in 2008 was overcome by the 2013 merger of the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties to create the CNRP.

Did the US government play a role in bringing about this merger? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it seems unlikely that Grove cut off his communication with his Cambodian contacts after his 2008 visit. It would be interesting to hear from either or both Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy more details about how and why they entered the negotiations that led to the merger, and the role of anyone else who might have assisted.

And did Grove or any other US official offer private advice to the opposition in connection with the 2013 election? When, before the merger, both the HRP and SRP boycotted the 2012 voter registration process, was that just because they were already beginning to reach the same ideas and had each concluded independently that the accuracy of the voters’ list doesn’t matter? Or did some US official with skills in political manipulation point out that a boycott of registration would make it more convincing to claim that the voters’ list was rigged, after the opposition lost the election?

What about the CNRP’s open appeal to anti-Vietnamese racism in the election? Was that Sam Rainsy just following his inclinations, or did some experienced US politician offer hints on the use of racism for electoral advantage?

I don’t know the answers to those questions either, and I don’t think there’s much point in asking the people who do know them. What we really need is another whistleblower giving a few million more documents to Wikileaks.

(People who would like to read Mussomeli’s full report of Grove’s visit can find it at https://www.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08PHNOMPENH75_a.html.)

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