An appalling and utterly predictable ruling in Cambodia

On March 3, Cambodia’s leading opposition figure, Kem Sokha, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 27 years, prompting an international outcry. It is the latest in a string of actions taken ahead of Cambodia‘s 23 July elections and the imminent transition of power from Hun Sen to his son Hun Manet. It was an appalling and utterly predictable decision.

The 70-year-old Hun Sen, Southeast Asia’s longest serving leader having come to power in 1985, has laid the foundations within the ruling Cambodian People’s party for the succession. Lt Gen Hun Manet has been gradually groomed for the job, currently serving as the deputy army chief. But Hun Sen is increasingly shrill and dictatorial.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Kem Sokha, who has been the single-most important opposition figure since the UNTAC era in the early 1990s.

He served in parliament from 1993-2002, when he founded the independent Cambodian Center for Human Rights. He returned to politics from 2005 to 2012, when the Human Rights Party merged with Sam Rainsy’s Candlelight Party, to become the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

In 2013, the CNRP won 55 of 123 seats, 45 percent, the strongest showing of the opposition. Hun Sen was infuriated at the strong showing that year and the mass protests that rocked the capital demanding an independent investigation into suspicions of voter fraud.

In 2014, the CNRP continued to challenge the CPP in commune-level elections. Hun Sen became obsessed with dismantling the opposition.

Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile in 2015, after his conviction for slander. In July 2016, Kem Ley, one of the leading political commentators, was gunned down, prompting mass protests.

Sokha was arrested in 2017 and was charged with colluding with the United States Embassy to overthrow Hun Sen based on a video-taped talk he gave in Australia in 2013. No evidence was ever provided.

In 2017, Hun Sen made very clear his intention to wield the military “to crack down on any movement to overthrow and undermine the country”, while at the same time warning journalists to “prepare their coffins” if “There is an attempt to destroy the Hun family.”

The only credible opposition

Ahead of the 2018 election, the government continued its assault. In September 2017, the government forced the Cambodia Daily to close after it failed to pay an astronomical $6.3 million tax bill. There was no attempt to resolve the tax dispute.

In November 2017, the Supreme Court, whose chief justice sat on the CPP’s executive committee, voted to dissolve the CNRP. Dozens of CNRP members were arrested.

The only credible opposition was decimated and the Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 parliamentary seats in the 2018 election.

Kem’s three-year trial was neither free nor fair, and was plagued by judicial shortcomings Including the intimidation of defense witnesses. The only real evidence surrounding the collusion was a three minute video in which he thanked the US government for supporting him and the political opposition.

He will remain under house arrest until his appeal is adjudicated, though that is a foregone conclusion; he will have no outside contact, and apparently his internet access has already been cut. His civil and political rights—including the right to vote, and stand in elections–were suspended.

The conviction of opposition figures and shuttering of the media is completely unnecessary. The Cambodian People’s Party is poised to win by a landslide, given the power of incumbency, the culture of vote buying, and political and legal intimidation of opposition figures, most of whom are in exile. But nothing is being left to chance.

The opposition is much weaker than it was in 2018. In last June’s commune election, the Candlelight Party won only 19 percent of the vote. When the Candlelight Party’s leader Son Chhay accused the CPP and election commission of stealing votes, they sued him for defamation; which he lost and then lost on appeal in December 2022. A Supreme Court ruling awarded the CPP and election commission $1 million in damages, in an attempt to bankrupt the opposition.
In June 2022, a Cambodian Court convicted 51 opposition figures for incitement and conspiracy. In October, Hun Sen threatened to dissolve the Candlelight Party.

In December 2022, a court sentenced 36 members of the banned CNRP, all but three of whom are in exile, between 5-7 years, fearful that they were planning to return to the country ahead of elections.

In January 2023, authorities arrested Thach Setha, the Candlelight Party’s vice president for writing bad checks, though they were never signed or deposited.

That month he threatened law suits and physical attacks against anyone who leveled charges of voter fraud against the CPP. “What do you think? I want to ask you. There are two choices, one is using the law, the other is using a stick [violence]. Which one do you take?”

Days later when he was accused of threatening the opposition, he again threatened to dispatch a violent mob to attack anyone leveling those accusations.

Leaving Nothing to Chance

It got even more surreal in late January when the CPP went forward to announce the nomination of Hun Sen for a fifth term so that he could save the country from “extremist politics and activities.”

The following month, the government shuttered the Voice of Democracy, the last free media, after Hun Sen spuriously accused it of slandering him and his son in a 9 February article about the $100,000 in official assistance to earthquake victims in Turkey.

According to Amnesty International, there are at least 39 members of the opposition who are political prisoners at present.

This past week Hun Sen paranoia went into overdrive as he warned of a “color revolution” and accused the CIA of sending spies to foment political instability.

But the government has moved on rank and file supporters too. In the clearest sign of voter intimidation, CPP goons have moved to take away the poverty cards of Candlelight party members that entitle people to subsidized food provisions.

Why are these gratuitous threats and attacks escalating now? Yes, in part it is the derangement of a dictator of 38 years.

In part they represent an understanding that though life has changed for the population in Phnom Penh, the country remains poor. While the poverty rate has been cut in half in the past decade, it’s still at 18 percent. Per capita income in the still overwhelmingly agrarian country is only $4,500, using purchasing power parity. 65 percent of the nearly 15 million people are under the age of 30.

But they also suggest an insecurity on the part of Hun Manet, who may not be so confident that he enjoys full CPP support.

There are other factions of the party that saw paths to power for themselves or family members. Not everyone supports Hun Manet and wants to see the country as a dynastic kleptocracy or China’s vassal state.

And with all the levers of power in his hand, the army, the police, the judiciary, no one is willing to challenge the strongman, even as he slips deeper into his paranoia and delusions.

Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

More than 40 Chinese vessels reported around Philippine-claimed island

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Saturday spotted more than 40 Chinese vessels near Pag-asa, one of the islands occupied by Manila in the South China Sea.

Coast Guard personnel stationed on the island – also known as Thitu – reported a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessel, a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel, and 42 suspected maritime militia vessels, anchored within 4.5 to 8 nautical miles of the shore.

The PCG said this was “clearly inside the land feature’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea.”

The PLA Navy vessel and CCG 5203 had been observed loitering in waters surrounding Pag-asa Island, while the suspected maritime militia vessels were anchored in the vicinity of cays west of the main island, Pag-asa Cay 3 and Pag-asa Cay 4, the PCG said in a statement.

Pag-asa Island, around 300 miles (483 kms) from Puerto Princesa in Palawan province, in the western Philippines, is the largest island in the Philippine-occupied Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the contested Spratly Islands. It serves as a local seat of government, and is home to more than 400 civilians, including 70 children.

The presence of Chinese vessels in the area has become frequent in recent years. In 2020, more than 100 Chinese vessels, which appeared to be fishing boats, were seen near the island. In 2022, a civilian boat manned by Philippine Navy personnel sailed near a sandbar off Pag-Asa Island in a bid to retrieve suspected Chinese rocket debris. A Chinese coast guard ship blocked their path and used a rubber boat to collect the debris.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and the Department of Foreign Affairs have yet to comment on Saturday’s report. Since Marcos took office on June 30, the Philippine government has filed at least 77 diplomatic protests against Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Last month, Marcos summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian – the first such summoning in recent years – after China deployed a military-grade laser against the PCG near Ayungin Shoal, or Second Thomas Shoal, in the Spratlys.

China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including two main archipelagos, the Paracels and the Spratlys, that it calls Xisha and Nansha, respectively.

In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and against Beijing’s sweeping claims in the contested waterway. But China has since refused to acknowledge the ruling.

Based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 arbitral award, the location of the Chinese vessels on Saturday falls squarely within Pag-asa Island’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea.

“Their continuing unauthorized presence is clearly inconsistent with the right of innocent passage and a blatant violation of the Philippines’ territorial integrity,” the PCG statement said.

Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

Border town residents feel safer after Malaysia cracked down on human smuggling

Residents of this community near where mass graves of trafficked migrants were discovered eight years ago say the border area is much quieter now – and they’re hoping it stays that way.

A decade ago, distressed foreigners on foot used to knock on doors asking for food. And city dwellers arrived by car from hundreds of kilometers away to buy smuggled goods for cheap at outposts just inside Malaysia.

But all that changed in 2015, after Malaysian authorities discovered more than 100 bodies –thought to be Rohingya and Bangladeshis – in two jungle locations in northern Perlis state, near a camp equipped with cages to lock up migrants.

After that, the authorities launched a crackdown on human smuggling and closed a free-flow zone on the border.

People living in Felcra Lubuk Sireh, a settlement within the boundaries of Wang Kelian that is eight km (five miles) from the Thai border, saw the effects of human smuggling up close and personal.

“I heard that these people came out from the woods near our village. They walked into the country through the Thai border via the beaten path in the jungle and someone would pick them up in four-wheel drive vehicles at the exit of the trails on our side,” Villager Yan Hashim said, adding that many of those who entered the country illegally brought children with them.

“They were unkempt, wearing ragged clothes, some without shoes and the majority appeared to be starving and some almost fainted because of exhaustion,” he said.

“Few could speak broken Malay while most used sign language to ask for water, food, slippers or clothes. It really broke our hearts to see them in that state and after the discovery, it occurred to us that the ones we encountered might be the same as those enduring the cruelties at the … camp found on Wang Burma hill.”
Yan Hashim said fewer immigrants pass through the village today.

“No one knocks on my door asking for food anymore,” he told BenarNews. “It is better this way and I hope the free-flow zone will remain closed.”

The zone allowed Thais to travel to Wang Kelian and Malaysians to travel to Wang Prachan across the border without passports, distances of about 1 kilometer. Many Thais living on the other side of the border took advantage of this access and traveled to a petrol station so they could take fuel back to their homes, locals recalled.

“Before the free-flow zone was closed in 2015, this town was bustling with tourists coming from across the country including Kuala Lumpur just to shop for a variety of goods such as mattresses, kitchen utensils and clothes at cheaper prices. Many of them were willing to travel such a distance to set foot into Thailand without a passport,” said a 46-year-old trader who asked to be identified only as Kamal because of safety concerns.

Today, residents said they feel safe as the cross-border smuggling activities and an influx of tourists, including those traveling 525 km (326 miles) from Kuala Lumpur, have slowed dramatically.

“It was lively then, but it came with a price,” Kamal said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Thais as many of us are like family since we are neighbors, but it was unnerving when smuggling activities were happening at your left and right and even worse when there were ‘tonto’ (spies for smugglers) all around us.”

Kamal said he witnessed a Thai man loading subsidized cooking oil, which he purchased at the free flow zone and hid under his car’s seat before crossing the border unchecked where he could sell the packets at a profit.

Kamal said he did not report the incident to authorities over fears for himself and his family, noting that smuggling syndicates could retaliate.

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said the free-flow zone, introduced in 1993 and disbanded after the mass graves were discovered, was no longer suitable because of potential threats.

“For the time being, the ministry is focusing on the development of infrastructure in the border area before moving on to discussing reopening the free-flow zone further,” Saifuddin said.

“I am not saying that Wang Kelian is under threat, but I am referring to the potential danger to the country in general,” he said.
‘Right under our noses’

A government-commissioned panel in 2022 reported that Malaysian officials could have prevented the torture and deaths of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi victims found in the shallow graves seven years earlier.

An English-version of the report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry appeared briefly on its website before being taken down after the commission’s chairman told reporters it was completed in 2019 but was confidential and subject to the country’s Official Secrets Act.

A since-retired police official had filed a report in January 2015 that a villager had tipped him off about a trafficking syndicate having approached him and others to help transport people from the region.

On the first day of hearings on the tragedy, RCI members were told that personnel followed human tracks and a soapy stream to find a campsite with wooden fixtures resembling guard towers and a shop. An officer testified about hearing a generator at the camp near where the graves were found.

Previous reporting said the camp contained pens which likely were used as cages to keep the trafficking victims.
Since the discovery caught the world’s attention, the government has increased security in the area, including cutting off many trails used by the smugglers.

A police source who asked BenarNews for anonymity because of safety concerns, blamed the 2015 tragedy on integrity issues among border personnel from government agencies, unfenced border areas and a lack of security enforcement.

“This cruelty happened right under our noses. How could the personnel manning the area near the campsite in the state forest reserve fail to notice the loud sound generator used at the campsite at nights,” he asked.

“How did the majority of traffickers know which route to take to illegally enter the country, and 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. was the best time to sneak in unnoticed?

“Who alerted the traffickers or smugglers when authorities conducting operations or raids,” he asked.

Meanwhile, Mohd Mizan Mohammad Aslam, a professor at the National Defense University of Malaysia, said smuggling and trafficking could return on a smaller scale. He pointed to weaknesses in border fences that could allow smugglers to cut or climb over them.

“As long as the system is not revised or enhanced, the potential of border security being manipulated and abused persists especially with the post-pandemic predicament and demand for foreign workers in certain sectors,” he told BenarNews

“There is lots at stake with the ongoing smuggling activities, not only from security aspects but also economically as billions of ringgit are spent on subsidizing petrol, cooking oil and sugar to ease Malaysians’ burden. Those items can be smuggled out of the country and sold on the other side of the border.”

Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

Laos Committed to Attracting More Visitors to Cambodia

AKP Phnom Penh, Laos is committed to investing in tourism, including direct flight connection to Cambodia’s coastal areas, and encouraging more investors to Cambodia.
Mr. Wei Qianjiang, Chairman of Alpha Data Technology Lao Sole Co., Ltd. and Representative of Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism to Laos, shared the note in a meeting on Feb. 3 with H.E. Thong Khon, Cambodia’s Minister of Tourism here in Phnom Penh.
H.E. Thong Khon recalled Mr. Wei Qianjiang on a meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen and his Lao counterpart H.E. Phankham Viphavanh and spoke highly of potential tourism and connectivity between the two countries.
The minister encouraged the representative to help encourage tour operators in Laos to include tour packages for Laotians and Chinese tourists to visit Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and coastal provinces of Cambodia.
Mr. Wei Qianjiang pledged to support the ideas and informed the minister that his firm is interested in building an 80-metre-tall Buddha statue in Preah Sihanouk province to attract more tourists.

Source: Agence Kampuchea Presse

5 things you need to know about the world’s least developed countries

Three years after the world began to shut down as COVID-19 took hold, the UN and other partners will gather in Doha, Qatar, to deliver a historic new compact to support the countries whose vulnerabilities the pandemic most exposed.
The conference of Least Developed Countries or LDCs takes place every 10 years and this year’s meeting from 5 to 9 March 2023, known as LDC5, will focus on returning the needs of the 46 designated countries to the top of the global agenda and supporting them as they strive to get back on track to sustainable development.
1. What is a Least Developed Country?
The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are countries listed by the United Nations that exhibit the lowest indicators of socioeconomic development across a range of indexes. All LDCs have a gross national per capita income (GNI) of below USD$1,018; compare that to almost $71,000 in the United States, $44,000 in France, $9,900 in Turkey and $6,530 in South Africa according to data from World Bank.
These countries also have low scores on the indicators for nutrition, health, school enrolment and literacy and high scores for economic and environmental vulnerability, which measures factors such as remoteness, dependence on agriculture and exposure to natural disasters.
There are currently 46 LDCs, the vast majority of which are in Africa [see box below]. The list is reviewed every three years by the UN Economic and Social Council. Six countries have graduated from LDC status between 1994 and 2020.
2. What are the challenges facing the least developed countries?
Today, the 46 LDCs are home to some 1.1 billion people, that’s 14 per cent of the world’s population, and more than 75 per cent of those people still live in poverty.
More than other countries, LDCs are at risk of deepening poverty and remaining in a situation of underdevelopment. They are also vulnerable to external economic shocks, natural and man-made disasters, communicable diseases and crucially climate change.
Currently, the planet is on course to warm by about 2.7°C this century, which would devastate LDCs. These countries have contributed the least to carbon emissions, and yet face some of the highest risks from climate change.
Meanwhile, LDCs are among those most affected by COVID-19; all but eight experienced negative growth rates in 2020 and the pandemic fall-out is predicted to last longer than in richer countries.
Debt is a major problem for all LDCs: four are classified as in debt distress (Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia and Sudan) and 16 LDCs are at high risk of debt distress.
As such, LDCs require the highest level of attention from the international community.
3. How can the United Nations and the international community help LDCs?
The UN system’s efforts to reverse the increasing marginalisation of LDCs in the global economy and to put them on a path to sustainable growth and development date back to the 1960s.
Since then, the UN has paid special attention to LDCs, recognising them as the most vulnerable in the international community and granting them certain benefits including:
• Development financing: notably grants and loans from donors and financial institutions.
• Multilateral trading system: such as preferential market access and special treatments.
• Technical assistance: notably, towards supporting trade.
The first LDC conference was held in Paris, France in 1981 and LDC5, marking the 50th anniversary was due to be held in March 2022, but was postponed to this year due to COVID.
4. What is the Doha Programme of Action?
The Doha Programme of Action (or DPoA, for acronym lovers!) is the development road map for LDCs agreed in March 2022.
It includes six key focus areas:
1. Eradicating poverty and building capacity.
2. Leveraging the power of science, technology, and innovation to fight vulnerabilities and to achieve the SDGs.
3. Supporting structural transformation as a driver of prosperity.
4. Enhancing international trade of LDCs and regional integration.
5. Addressing climate change, environmental degradation, recovering from COVID-19 pandemic and building resilience against future shocks.
6. Mobilizing international solidarity and reinvigorating global partnerships.
The full implementation of the DPoA will help LDCs to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting negative socio-economic impacts and enable them to get back on track to achieve the SDGs including addressing climate change.
The full text of the Doha Programme of Action is available here in the 6 UN official languages.
5. What can we expect from LDC5?
The UN, LDCs, Heads of State and Government, development partners, the private sector, civil society, parliamentarians, and youth will come together to agree partnerships, commitments, innovations and plans in an effort to reach the SDGs.
The UN Secretary-General is due to address the conference and has already highlighted the importance of supporting LDCs.
“The Doha Programme of Action reminds us that global recovery depends on LDCs getting the support they need. They need bold investments in health, education and social protection systems — all the resources required to fully implement Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.”
As LDCs take the first step towards those goals, they will meet certain targets which will enable them to graduate from the least developed country status.
Six countries have gone through this process: Botswana (in 1994), Cape Verde (2007), Maldives (2011), Samoa (2014), Equatorial Guinea (2017), and Vanuatu (2020).
List of Least Developed Countries:
The following 46 countries were listed as LDCs by the UN as of March 2023:
• Africa (33): Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia
• Asia (9): Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Nepal, Timor-Leste and Yemen
• Caribbean (1): Haiti
• Pacific (3): Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Tuval

Source: UN News Service