Class Struggles in Cambodia

The Cambodian People’s Party (cpp) has ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in charge since 1985. The cpp, a Doi Moi/Perestroika–styled “Marxist-Leninist” party until it saw the “end of history” in 1991, came to power when the Vietnamese army and Khmer Rouge defectors like Hun Sen drove Pol Pot and company out of the capital in 1976.[1]

Under cpp rule the capitalist economy has regained some level of stability and in recent years has grown by several percentage points annually. A large part of this growth has been driven by the garment sector which employees some 700,000 mainly female workers with roots in the rural countryside. As described in a previous piece published by Insurgent Notes in 2016, the country has seen numerous strikes and mass demonstrations.

In 2013, a united opposition—the Cambodia National Rescue Party (cnrp)—nearly won the national elections, the first time the prime minister’s party was really challenged in decades. The results were widely challenged as fixed and the opposition led huge rallies through the streets of the capital that just happened to coincide with massive protests by garment workers for a raise in minimum wage. It was all eventually shut down after a park that was home to an Occupy-style encampment was cleared by force, demonstrations were banned, and specialized military forces were called in to a picket line in front of a garment factory complex where several were shot dead.

In the months and years that followed, opposition party members were beaten and jailed, one of two main leaders was convicted in absentia and exiled, and the other went into hiding after details of his personal relationship with a mistress were blasted out over the Internet. The latter eventually re-emerged though the former is still in exile and has been banned by law from leading the party. A law passed recently even required that his image be removed from the countless party signs and banners displayed all over the country. Stalin airbrushed people out of history. Hun Sen airbrushes them out of the present.

Things continued to simmer until 2016. With the 2017 commune elections and public talk of another raise in the minimum wage for garment and footwear workers approaching, things started to heat up in more ways than one.

In July 2016, prominent activist Kem Ley was shot dead in a Phnom Penh gas station in broad daylight after he commented on a report that came out detailing some of the prime minister’s family’s many business interests in interviews on Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Hun Sen’s daughter, a fabulously wealthy woman who controls several media outlets, publicly wished that the English-language newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, would be held “liable” for giving the aforementioned report coverage. More on that later! Around a hundred thousand people attended Kem Ley’s public funeral procession.

As us corporations continued to make inroads into the Cambodian economy, the Cambodian government increased its rhetoric against foreign interference. In December, at a Coca Cola factory opening, Hun Sen, an avid supporter of Donald Trump, referenced resistance to Trump’s election.

“There are always demonstrations after elections in Cambodia,” he said. “This time after the election, demonstrations erupted in the United States in many states.”

Later that month, the Cambodian government suspended routine joint exercises with the us military just weeks after it held the largest joint exercises with the Chinese military in Cambodian history.

In February 2017, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan claimed Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the Voice of Democracy “incite the population against the government,” which is of course to some extent true.

Days later, Hun Sen again pointed to us President Donald Trump as an example of relations between the state and the media.

“Donald Trump sees that these groups cause chaos. That’s why he doesn’t allow them access,” he said. “Now it’s the turn of the United States itself as cnn and others are no longer allowed to enter the White House. Will you accuse Donald Trump of being a dictator?”

In March, the Cambodian military canceled a planned joint exercise with the Australian military. Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said, “I wish to state that every exercise is under the sponsorship of China.”

In April, the us Navy Mobile Construction Battalion was ordered to leave the country after being present since 2008. The official schedule for the naval group showed it was set “to build six school bathroom facilities and two maternity wards.” No official reason was given for the order, and government officials publicly denied it was even given.

In May, Defense Minister Tea Banh publicly threatened to crack down violently on any pro-opposition protests in the wake of the scheduled commune elections.

“If they lose, but do not accept that loss, and come up with this or that demand—maybe soon we will smash their teeth,” he said.

Two months later he would be granted the honorific title of “samdech” by the king. He joined the six other “samdech” in the country, which include Hun Sen and his wife.

The commune elections were held in June. The cpp won 50 percent of the votes, compared with nearly 62 percent in the 2012 commune elections. The opposition won 44 percent of the votes and picked up a large number of seats. Because of the way seats are allotted, the cpp ended up winning 70 percent of the commune councils, though this is still a big drop from the 97 percent they won in 2012.

Some irregularities were claimed in the election but, for the most part, the results were accepted by all involved. Interestingly, the opposition kept publicly claiming before and after the election that they expected to win “sixty percent of the vote.” More on that later, too!

The ruling party was not pleased with the election results, though it did not immediately react. Instead, it resorted to a sort of salami tactics aimed to destroy the opposition and tide over the organized workers.

Starting on August 21, several radio stations that rent airtime to the us-backed Voice of America and Radio Free Asia along with the Voice of Democracy (vod) were shut down. vod representatives cried government interference, but a government minister claimed the stations simply ran afoul of the rules regarding registration and tax payments.

The same day, the prime minister publicly denounced the Cambodia Daily, an English language newspaper which has been published since 1993, as a “thief” and demanded it pay $6.3 million in back taxes or shut down by September 4.

On August 23, the us Department of Homeland Security announced that Cambodia and three African countries would face visa restrictions as a result of their refusal to repatriate citizens convicted of crimes in the United States. The Cambodian government refused the return of Cambodian felons from the us in April, claiming it was a violation of “human rights” to separate them from their families.

Earlier that day, the Foreign Affairs Ministry had ordered the us-backed National Democratic Institute (ndi)—an infamous weapon of American imperialism—to close within seven days after documents showing that it was aiding the opposition party in preparation for the upcoming election came to light. According to the papers, the ndi helped the opposition party develop a strategy to win the 2018 national elections. Part of the strategy was reportedly to claim that the party expected to win 60 percent of the votes according to its surveys. If it didn’t win 60 percent (remember that number from earlier?) in the actual election, it was supposed to claim that it was cheated. The official reason behind the shutdown of the ndi’s operations in Cambodia was that the ndi had not registered with the tax department.

On August 24, us State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticized “a biased approach on the part of the government” in response to a question about the media purge in Cambodia. The us Embassy in Phnom Penh also decried the “deterioration in Cambodia’s democratic climate,” in a rare statement critical of the ruling party.

Later that day an article appeared on the ruling party aligned Fresh News website claiming a mass protest at the us Embassy in Phnom Penh—reminiscent of a 1964 rally turned riot—was in the making. The article referenced the leader of a group aligned with the ruling party, who last led a rally in 2015 where two opposition officials were beaten to a bloody pulp. The article contained pictures of an infamous protest at the us Embassy decades earlier. At the 1964 protest, largely suspected to have been organized by king-turned-civilian head of state Norodom Sihanouk, the windows were busted out of the embassy building and vehicles were burned to the ground by a raucous crowd chanting slogans like: “us Go Home.”

Government officials also made public statements. Hun Sen’s son and chief of the General Directorate of Intelligence wrote “You need to respect the sovereignty, law and regulation of the host country.” An Interior Ministry undersecretary who also happens to be an “adviser” of the government-aligned cnc television channel added: “Historians have agreed that the us cost the Cambodian people so much bloodshed in the 1970s which contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge genocide.”

“We are left to wonder why your ‘style’ of democracy is bloody and brutal?” he wrote. “We wish to send a clear message again to the us Embassy that we defend our national sovereignty.”

The cpp justifies its rule on its Vietnamese-backed overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and the “stability” it has maintained ever since. The idea that the United States, which backed the overthrow of Norodom Sihanouk, bombed eastern Cambodia to bits, and later backed the Khmer Rouge as a weapon against the Vietnamese-aligned Cambodian government, is a partisan of democracy and human rights in Cambodia is of course laughable, but the rhetoric coming from the ruling party as ngos and media outlets are closed in the run-up to national elections is something relatively new in the post–United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia society.

There is a genuine sense that outside interference is aiming for another “color revolution” in Cambodia, and the opposition has done nothing to dispel those notions. Back in 2015, opposition party co-leader Kem Sokha even told an audience in Australia “there is a powerful democratic country which is helping the cnrp to organize policy and political platform for the party in order to rule the country.” Opposition members also started wearing black clothing one day a week, but the ruling party quickly put an end to that. There will be no “black revolution” in Cambodia under their watch.

There has been a long and apparent transition away from the Western powers that played a large role in reestablishing the Cambodian state after the civil war in recent years. China has taken on an increasingly important role in the country, and the local rulers are no longer concerned enough about threats to aid to pay much lip service to countries like the United States and Australia.

As one commentator put it, “At this point, it looks like the United States is losing leadership by default and China’s gaining it by design.”

Countries like South Korea also play a role. Rumor has it that South Korean businessmen requested the violent crackdown on workers in 2014. Coincidentally, the “democratic” South Korean government was one of the first in the world to congratulate the cpp on its victory in 2013, even as the election was being challenged.

While the opposition and anyone viewed as friendly to it is being given the stick, the rulers are dangling carrots for the large and restive working class, although everyone knows a stick waits for them too.

This month the prime minister announced a rise in the monthly minimum wage to $168 per month “at least” for apparel workers, and plans to institute free public bus rides and company paid healthcare. The pm also promised the creation of pensions by 2019, but was at pains to attribute these improvements in conditions to an increase in foreign investment that come courtesy of low labor costs and labor peace. Pressures from the opposition or earlier strikes and mass marches had nothing to do with it, according to the strongman.

Government-aligned unions praised the announcements as was to be expected. Other unions called for a raise to the minimum living wage of $224 monthly. These unions sometimes operate in the same places and some unions have been known to cross picket lines and even battle each other.

The head of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia seemed to acquiesce to yet another minimum wage increase but said: “Hopefully it’s the last time it’s this big.” The World Bank recently attributed a slow down in garment export growth to increases in wages without corresponding increases in productivity. The writing is on the wall even as the cpp tries to placate workers at least until 2018 is over.

A draft law on minimum wage for all workers in the works includes language that would ban “any protest, advocacy or objection to the minimum wage rate—as well as any independent research into the issue by unions, ngos, journalists or academics.” The ex-Stalinist government now looks to become an arbiter above society to set wages without conflict annually à la Mussolini’s pnf.

The prime minister has encouraged workers to cast ballots near their factories rather than traveling home to their provinces as they did in the past. New laws passed allow this, which is seen as a move to concentrate votes for the opposition in places where they already have support.

From a communist perspective, the results of the upcoming election might not mean much. Thirty years of cpp rule have not been able to put an end to strikes, including wildcats that often spread and had a real potential to get “out of hand.” The opposition cnrp occasionally makes promises to the workers, and in the past had strong ties with assassinated union leader Chea Vichea, but it also has severe xenophobic tendencies and never misses a chance to place the blame for any and all problems on “the youn” (a derogatory, but popular, word for the Vietnamese).

Although the cnrp has gained support in recent years, many now seem to regard it as another group of power-hungry bureaucrats looking for self-enrichment. More than a few have publicly asked the leaders why they run away time and time again rather than confronting the cpp. Still, the opposition represents a real danger for the working class. In the past opposition rallies have merged with workers’ protests and strikes. The cnrp is an anti-Vietnamese party whose rallies have sometimes led to attacks on Vietnamese people. There are hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. In the past there have been many attacks against them.

Any successful movement for the emancipation of Cambodian workers from wage slavery and the globalized capitalist system would require a more or less immediate spread to neighboring countries. The many Vietnamese in the country could serve as a bridge to neighboring Vietnam, just as the many Khmer workers in Thailand could serve as a bridge to that country. Overcoming the historical animosity that the cnrp feeds upon would surely be a difficult task, but it can be done by a working class motivated by its conditions to liberate itself and all of humanity in the process. Besides, we’ve been trying to do away with capitalism for over a century. Even a struggle that goes nowhere beats a life of servitude.

  1. [1] Doi Moi is the name given to the economic reforms initiated in Vietnam in 1986 with the goal of creating a “socialist-oriented market economy.”

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