Rev­o­lu­tion­ary mind­set flawed

The Phnom Penh Post - - NA­TIONAL -

oc­curred, a cen­tral driver was pop­u­lar dis­con­tent with au­to­cratic lead­ers and a ma­jor im­pe­tus was al­le­ga­tions of elec­toral fraud.

Kao Kim Hourn, a min­is­ter at­tached to Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen, made the think tank an­nounce­ment dur­ing a press con­fer­ence upon the premier’s re­turn from the 14th Asean-China Expo.

“The royal govern­ment has as­signed a re­search work­ing group to co­op­er­ate with each other to in­ves­ti­gate and ex­change in­for­ma­tion,” Kim Hourn told re­porters at Ph­nom Penh In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

“We agreed to­gether to in­ves­ti­gate, to un­der­stand more about the root causes of colour revo­lu­tions,” Hourn con­tin­ued, adding that the think tank will sub­mit “rec­om­men­da­tions, es­pe­cially on po­lit­i­cal pol­icy”, to the govern­ment.

Head­lin­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion is the di­rec­tor of the Royal Cam­bo­dian Acad­emy, Sok Touch, who re­cently spoke out against colour revo­lu­tions, char­ac­ter­is­ing most ma­jor anti-govern­ment demon­stra­tions – par­tic­u­larly those fol­low­ing the dis­puted 2013 elec­tions – as part of a con­certed, years-long ef­fort at rev­o­lu­tion.

A cen­tral fig­ure in those protests, cur­rent Cam­bo­dia Na­tional Res­cue Party Pres­i­dent Kem Sokha, is now lan­guish­ing in a Tbong Kh­mum prison on charges of “trea­son” af­ter a years-old video resur­faced in which he dis­cussed re­ceiv­ing ad­vice from the US on his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

The video, au­thor­i­ties in­sist – with lit­tle ap­par­ent re­gard for his pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence – is ev­i­dence that the op­po­si­tion leader was part of a United States-backed plot to top­ple the govern­ment through colour rev­o­lu­tion.

In the footage, Sokha de­scribes re­ceiv­ing as­sis­tance from peo­ple in the US to pur­sue a “bot­tom-up” strat­egy of chang­ing a “dic­ta­tor”, and men­tions the events in Ser­bia that led to the down­fall of for­mer Pres­i­dent Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic at the hands of a pop­u­lar upris­ing, though Sokha goes on to seem­ingly dis­tance him­self from such tac­tics.

How­ever, in de­cry­ing the move­ment that led to Milo­se­vic’s ouster, the govern­ment has failed to ac­knowl­edge its roots, or the lessons it and other pop­u­lar move­ments might hold for Cam­bo­dia.

In Ser­bia, wide­spread sus­pi­cions about the 2000 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion re­sult led to 10 days of protest, a gen­eral strike and the con­ver­gence of hun­dreds of thou­sands of pro­test­ers in the cap­i­tal, Bel­grade.

In what be­came known as the “Bull­dozer Rev­o­lu­tion”, Milo­se­vic was forced to step down. He was later charged with war crimes in con­nec­tion to the wars in Bos­nia, Croa­tia and Kosovo, though died dur­ing the pro­ceed­ings.

Elec­toral ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties also sparked protests in Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Rev­o­lu­tion”, Ukraine’s 2004 “Or­ange Rev­o­lu­tion” and Kyr­gyzs­tan’s “Tulip rev­o­lu­tion” in 2005.

“If you re­veal elec­toral fraud, that works as a cat­a­lyst in most coun­tries,” said Abel Polese, a scholar from Dublin City Univer­sity who has stud­ied colour revo­lu­tions in depth. “There was a lot of ten­sion and peo­ple were just wait­ing for a fuse to say ‘this is all go­ing wrong and this is the ul­ti­mate ev­i­dence’.”

Such pop­u­lar dis­con­tent – and deep sus­pi­cions of elec­toral ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties – was ev­i­dent in the mass protests fol­low­ing the 2013 elec­tions, prompt­ing soul-search­ing and prom­ises of re­form by the CPP, which won by a nar­row mar­gin.

How­ever, in the past two years, the govern­ment’s at­ten­tion has turned from re­form to lock­ing up op­po­si­tion mem­bers, crit­ics and mem­bers of civil so­ci­ety, cul­mi­nat­ing in Sokha’s ar­rest on Septem­ber 3.

A 2010 study edited by Polese and fel­low aca­demic Don­nacha Ó Beachain – The Colour Revo­lu­tions in the For­mer Soviet Re­publics – looks at 12 ex­am­ples of non­vi­o­lent move­ments against in­cum­bent regimes.

It found a sim­i­lar pat­tern of civil so­ci­ety and po­lit­i­cal ac­tors work­ing to dis­credit the au­thor­i­ties while push­ing peo­ple to vote at an elec­tion. “The as­sump­tion is that, where the regime is suf­fi­ciently un­pop­u­lar, a high turnout will al­low a re­source­ful op­po­si­tion to win the elec­tions. The sec­ond part of this strat­egy re­lies on the as­sump­tion that the au­thor­i­ties might not play fair with the elec­tion re­sults.

“Once the regime re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge the elec­tion re­sults (by fal­si­fy­ing them or sim­ply re­fus­ing to step down), peo­ple are called on to the streets and a gen­eral strike is called un­til the sta­tus quo changes (this may mean that the au­thor­i­ties step down or that they crush the protests).”

Dis­cussing pop­u­lar re­volt against the Ar­me­nian govern­ment in 2004 in the book, Ar­me­nian aca­demic Mikayel Zolyan notes that coun­tries with “im­i­tated democ­racy” – where for­mal demo­cratic and le­gal in­sti­tu­tions were a “façade” be­hind which elites made de­ci­sions and chose lead­ers – were more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence “colour revo­lu­tions”. “Even though ‘sta­bil­ity’ is a cen­tral con­cept in the po­lit­i­cal dis­course of pro­gov­ern­ment politi­cians both in Ar­me­nia and other post- Soviet states, the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem de­scribed above is in­her­ently and fun­da­men­tally un­sta­ble,” he writes.

How­ever, in the wake of suc­cess­ful regime changes in the early 2000s, the study notes that au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes be­came adept at coun­ter­ing colour rev­o­lu­tion strate­gies through harsher re­pres­sion of NGOs, pro­test­ers and op­po­si­tion lead­ers.

“‘If in doubt, shoot’ is now clearly the motto of au­to­crats who wish to keep power,” the authors write.

In the past two years, only one se­nior of­fi­cial, In­te­rior Min­is­ter Sar Kheng, has pub­licly ad­dressed the role of a govern­ment in a colour revo­lu­tions, say­ing such move­ments were the re­sult of in­jus­tice, and not­ing it was au­thor­i­ties’ re­spon­si­bil­ity to keep the peo­ple happy. “A move­ment, or colour rev­o­lu­tion or peo­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion, can hap­pen be­cause of our own in­ac­tive man­age­ment,” Kheng said, adding: “We should not crack down on other peo­ple when we do things wrong; we are not be­ing re­spon­si­ble – this is called in­jus­tice.”

Rather than an ef­fort to ex­plore this dy­namic, said re­gional an­a­lyst Carl Thayer, the pro­posed think tank with China is merely a “smoke­screen” whose main ob­jec­tive isn’t to un­der­stand colour revo­lu­tions, but “to keep the one party in power”.

Thayer as­serted that Hun Sen’s ob­ses­sion with colour revo­lu­tions stems from “anx­i­ety” over not know­ing “real pop­u­lar opin­ion” due to sup­pres­sion of free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

Hun Sen’s agree­ment, Thayer said, was likely “an­other way of in­gra­ti­at­ing him­self with China” and a “con­duit for China to con­tinue to un­der­mine the US”.

Polese, the aca­demic, said in an in­ter­view yes­ter­day that the govern­ment’s cre­ation of a “scape­goat” in the form of Sokha’s pur­ported shad­owy US-backed conspiracy was a strat­egy to threaten its op­po­nents, rather than un­der­stand the threat they faced.

“It’s a way of ac­knowl­edg­ing they are too weak to deal with the fig­ure one to one, or in a more demo­cratic set­ting. So in­stead of say­ing po­lit­i­cally ‘we are stronger than you’, you say‘we don’t care about pol­i­tics be­cause your morals are so low’; or ‘you are a for­eign agent’; or ‘you are a fa­nat­i­cal per­son’; or ‘you don’t pay taxes’.”

HONG ME­NEA

Xi Jin­ping, pres­i­dent of China and the Com­mu­nist Party, and Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen shake hands in Oc­to­ber last year at the Peace Palace in Ph­nom Penh.

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