Foreign Policy Blogs

More Trouble in Cambodia

Independent radio host Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly inciting a secession movement. Photo: Reuters

Over the past weeks and months, in the shadows of other, more prominent global events, and with the world’s attention focused on other places, Cambodia has ceased being a democracy.

If that statement sounds exaggerated, allow me to recap some of the more infamous shenanigans which have turned this former war torn nation into a modern day banana republic.

Last January, just as I was arriving in Cambodia, I observed hundreds of people in a very poor district in the capital city of Phnom Penh being kicked out of their homes without compensation. At the time, I wrote this for Dissent Magazine:

Approximately seventy people sat outside the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh last week in the sweltering heat because, quite frankly, they had nowhere else to go. They were members of some 300 families who were forcibly evicted from their homes in Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila district on January 3. Their homes were bulldozed to make way for corporate development.

Land grabbing has been a hallmark of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration over the years. In July, a major Russian rubber corporation, Casotim, seeking to exploit a potential wealthy stretch of land in Kratie province, became embroiled in a dispute with local villagers. Shortly after, police raided the commune, resulting in the shooting death of a 14-year old girl; witnesses say the young girl was cowering in her house when she was shot.

One man who is an outspoken critic of this practice is Mam Sonando, an independent radio host. He was arrested in the days following the police raid in Kratie and was charged with inciting a secessionist rebellion against Hun Sen’s government. On Monday, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mr. Sonando is currently 70-years old and reportedly suffers from a number of medical problems.

International condemnation of the farcical conviction was swift. Amnesty International called it “shocking and baseless,” adding that no evidence was produced against Mr. Sonando at his trial. The U.S. embassy released its typical bland statement about “being concerned” but did call for the activist’s immediate release.

On a related topic, the issue of logging has led to some gruesome ends for two environmental activists. I covered the death of Chut Wutty for The Diplomat Magazine in April and May. He was shot in Koh Kong Province after he refused to hand over his camera’s memory stick to a military policeman. The policeman than allegedly killed himself, and the whole thing was to be investigated. To this point, nothing has been done except to attempt to sweep the whole bloody affair under the carpet.

Then, just last month, another journalist who highlighted the government’s corruption and negligence with respect to the logging issue was found hacked to death with an axe and stuffed into the trunk of his car. In his last article, Hang Serei Oudom of the Vorakchun Khmer Daily newspaper had “accused the son of a military police commander of smuggling logs in military-plated vehicles and extorting money from people who were legally transporting wood.”

When activists and journalists who call out the political and economic leaders of a country are either thrown in prison or murdered, that is not democracy. Readers might react unsurprised if this were a story about Iran, North Korea, or perhaps some South American countries where outspoken individuals have a proclivity for simply disappearing.  Now, you won’t be shocked the next time this happens in Cambodia.

Did I mention that I’m writing this post from my apartment in Phnom Penh? If you don’t hear from me in awhile, perhaps you should assume the worst.

  • teepee77

    I find it shocking that atrocities like this are being committed in a country that is supposed to be a democracy. Obviously, the situation in Cambodia is less than ideal, but such harsh government action and repression is ridiculous. What shocks me most is that I have heard no news of this, save for this blog and a couple of other obscure sources. It seems like all the news has been focusing on recently has been the goings-on in the Middle East, but clearly there is an exigence in Cambodia that cannot be ignored. It should also not be simply brushed off, like it seems to be. The United States, the ultimate promoter of democracy, should do something to help the Cambodians. As it is, Cambodia is supposed to be a democratic country, and if that democracy is challenged, the U.S. should attempt to help. It may be more effective at this point than attempting to instill democracy into a wholly undemocratic country. It may also give the Middle East some time to forget about the recent American film desecrating Mohammad, which would then allow it to come back into Middle Eastern affairs with full force.

  • Luke Baeckelandt

    It really scares me that things like this still go on in Cambodia. Things like the disappearence of Cambodians is eerily reminicent of the Pol-Pot era and his Khlmer Rouge thugs. I really thought Cambodia and South East Asian countries could have come past this barbaric behavior. Bulldozing area of a city district makes me sick. The government obviously has no right to make this decision unless they have a plan for the citizens on where to move and if they get concent from those citizens. As for the 70 year old radio host being arrested, is it really necessary for the Cambodian Government to put a 70 year old man in prison? What exactly do they get out of this? If you ask me, the Cambodia government should be focused on building industry and trying to compete with Vietnam in the South East Asian region, economically; Not trying to repress it’s citizens for potential political reform. The United States and other members of the UN can’t do much other than condemn the situation. The only action that I think the UN can do is pass a resolution that calls for peacekeeping forces to be deployed in the country. With these Peace Keepers in place, the deaths, disapearences and oppression with not be as common among the citizens and the Cambodia government will have to reform under international pressure.

  • Tim LaRocco

    @36071961138e258636189771d217310b:disqus the UN will never be a part of any political solution in Cambodia. The PRC is one of Phnom Penh’s strongest allies.

  • Jack P

    The most shocking thing about this situation in Cambodia is how petty or even non-existent the offenses are that prompt the extreme governmental response. Committing acts of Khmer Rouge era gruesomeness against mere journalists (or even worse a teenage girl) is beyond over-reacting; the Cambodian government is resorting to absolute senseless violence for what don’t even seem like threats against their regime. Beyond the fact that this sort of behavior is in total disregard to any sort of democratic values, the Cambodian government seems to have done a pretty good job of hiding these actions. Granted the Middle East dominates most US foreign policy talk lately, but that should be no excuse for why atrocities like these just slide on by. While the US is in no position to get involved militarily, they should see it as their duty to broadcast this senseless violence to the rest of the uninformed world. As the world’s champion of free speech, the US should take it upon themselves to do what Cambodian journalists must now live in fear to do: raise awareness about how quickly their country is descending into anarchy. If the US is really feeling like humanitarians, they could go as far as to initiate economic sanctions against Cambodia (though I’m not sure our economic relations are very strong to begin with), but the United States needs to respect their own free speech by acknowledging the deterioration of others’. Obscene violence and disregard for human rights should not go unnoticed by the rest of the global community.


Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.