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Why Should Cambodia Stop Arresting Youth Activists?

Written By: Samoeurth Seavmeng, 3rd Generation Leader of Politikoffee Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia  Photo Credit: Mother Nature Cambodia The former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Anan, once said  “A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifetime; it is condemned to bleed to death”. Youth’s participation in socioeconomic and political developments play crucial roles for Cambodia as a developing country. Youth accounts for more than 30% of the Cambodian population of more than 16 million people. Youth and their civic and political engagement are in danger when their freedom of expression is suppressed. In recent years, some outspoken youth activists have been arrested and jailed for expressing their concerns on critical issues impacting their community and society. Why should they be in jail for expressing concerns on important social issues? Why, as youth, do they have to end up in prison rather than receive praise for their activism? What are the negative impacts of the suppression on youth that prevents them from expressing their opinions? Arresting youth activists means dwarfing their potential Three members of the Mother Nature Cambodia were accused of “plotting” to oust the Cambodian government and were arrested in 2021. The previous arrest of this youth group has, no doubt, affected young people’s ability and freedom to think and express themselves. Although their sentence has been reduced and now that they are out of jail, the arrests have already scared other young people and youth activists who want to express their concerns. The damage has already been done. The arrests and jailing of young people have undoubtedly affected Cambodian youth’s freedom of thinking big. This damage will continue to affect their thinking for a long time. More importantly, the act of arrests or imprisonment to silence the citizens only opens a bigger gap between the “governed” and the “governors” and it could cause more misunderstanding and conflicts. There is one saying that goes: “Real gold does not fear the test of fire”. If you do not commit the act, you shall prove your innocence. You should not be scared. The government should first hold discussions with the concerned parties to listen to the problems before having any accusations. The “Culture of Dialogue'' should be practiced more often, especially in the future. I believe this practice will contribute to a closer and better relationship between the government and citizens. Government is more than just governing the country peacefully and it is more than just a group of politicians deciding alone how the country should be governed. It is about everyone’s participation in the process. Politics is supposed to be inclusive, participatory and, more importantly, free for all. When the culture of self-censorship is rooted among the citizens, especially the younger ones, the ability to think creatively and independently will be dwarfed. Cambodia does not only need more creativity and innovation in businesses and startups, but it also needs political innovators, which is crucial for the country to build a more unique and prosperous nation in the future. The world is dramatically changing, meaning the current political system might not work for Cambodia in the future. In this regard, the next generation should be encouraged to think big, free and beyond. Arresting youth activists will only suppress their potential to think beyond things and dwarf their potential in thinking creatively and innovatively. Therefore, youth civic and political participants are extremely crucial for Cambodia and no youth should be arrested for expressing their opinions on issues that matter to them and their country. Why is youth and civic engagement important for Cambodia? As a citizen, we have the responsibility to lead our country along with the government officials and politicians. We have the role to direct the country with them. Cambodia is not owned by anyone. The next generation will inherit everything from their current leaders. Therefore, the government should not pressure themselves to overwork and work alone. Some issues could be helped by the citizens who have the right to help and keep the government accountable for what it has promised in its elections campaign. This could help the government save some time to focus on bigger issues. Significant problems like deforestation, overuse of plastics, filling of lakes and rivers, and sand dredging, among other issues, should be shared responsibilities between Cambodian people and the government. Youth activists, for a concrete example, could help the government by observing the issues and reporting to the government and media to help spread words so that solutions to the problems can be proposed. The government should not overreact but instead try to understand the issues and figure things out. However, so far, there have been little discussions or frank talks between these two sides. The culture of not talking ends up a confusion between them. I believe young people have no intention to put their country in danger. All they want is inclusive development, less corruption, responsible leaders and transparent governance. The government should act as “parents” instead of “enemies” for youth and other citizens.  Youth empowerment in the Cambodian political sphere Among the 20 political parties in Cambodia, there is only one youth party named “Cambodian Youth Party” which is founded by Pich Sros who is the president of the party and a member of the Supreme Council for Consultation and Recommendations. Cambodia's current political arena is occupied by senior people who have been politically driving Cambodia to what it is nowadays. This does not mean they are not capable of leading the country anymore but when they are retired, who will be the next political leaders in the country? And while they do not seem to equip the next generations to become future leaders, how can young people have the ability to lead their country? The commune and national elections are coming soon and if the space of political engagement is still limited, the chance to have more young politicians are far behind and youth will not feel like they belong to the political sphere anymore. Cambodian youth still suffer from the lack of the capacity and mechanisms supporting them to engage in politics and governance. This limitation is a result of a prohibition preventing teachers and students not to talk about politics in schools. Youth have become less active in the political sphere over the past few years. Since the ban was announced, they have practiced self-censorship and have been afraid of talking about politics in schools, which affects their critical thinking skill and political literacy. Youth build these skills by discussing and analyzing political issues with their peers but when this practice is banned, how could they improve their skills? The ban to prevent free discussion about politics will also dwarf youth’s political literacy and this will definitely decrease their participation in politics. All in all, youth and their engagement in political and civic space are essential to build a stronger, more transparent and innovative Cambodia. Youth’s participation in every sector decides the fate of the country. Therefore, their freedom of expression should be empowered and encouraged, rather than suppressed. Arresting active youth or putting them in jail only results in adverse consequences for the country in the long run. Suggestions As a youth and a citizen who wants to participate in civic and political affairs in the country, I have a few suggestions to address this important issue: Cambodian youth are enthusiastic to engage in the country’s governance and they should not get kicked out. The government should not perceive this activism as a threat to the country but instead consider it as a contribution to improve the country. Therefore, there should be more discussions among the two parties to understand each other better. I believe the government should initiate more youth-oriented events so that young people can voice their concerns directly to their leaders. The upcoming elections are very crucial for the government to show to the Cambodian citizens that it really cares about the country, especially the citizens. Engaging youth in the election process is a starting point for participatory elections and a great start to empower youth in politics. Political space should be more open for young people to engage so that they will be able to learn more. The freedom of thinking, expressing and participating in the political process should not be suppressed. Their free thinking will help Cambodia innovate to get ready for the fast-changing future.        

Politik

The Promised Land of Democracy: Cambodia’s Need to Realise Free and Fair Elections

Written by: Chea Sameang, a graduate with a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia Photo Credit: Jerry Redfern On March 1, 2020, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Cambodia will hold commune elections on June 5, 2022, and that the general election shall be held in July 2023, under the theme of  “free and fair” - and in monsoon season humidity. In theory, it might be a “free and fair” election for multi-party democracy, with nearly 50 parties competing with the long-ruling party CPP in the commune election. But in reality, it might be a bridge too far, with competitors unlikely to even touch the CPP’s tail. However, we can never be too sure of what will happen in Cambodia’s next election in 2023. Do citizens care to invest in democracy and vote, after the pandemic shot out their daily bread and the staunchly right-wing party was kicked to the ground, setting like a sunset in 2017?  With this op-ed, I am not going to provide readers with foresight or prediction on the Cambodian election in 2023, as I know well that Cambodian youth and political observers already understand what is going to happen in the next election. Who is going to win all the seats? And, who is going to rule the country? Prime Minister Hun Sen already claimed at the Peace Palace on August 1, 2021, that he would stay in power until he “no longer wants to do it anymore.” Instead, with this op-ed, I am simply going to walk readers through my explanation of why free and fair elections could be the solution to improve Cambodia's democracy in the future.  Signs of Decay After the Crackdown  After the crackdown on the outlawed CNRP from the political boxing ring in 2017, the CPP won all the power, with nearly 90% of the ballots, and then eliminated almost all that remained of the CNRP - members, supporters, and activists - with threats, intimidation, and prison terms.  The alleged conspiracy, incitement to commit a felony, and social unrest become the most powerful tools to freeze those former CNRP activists and members, linking them to the so-called “Color Revolution” to overthrow the Cambodian government.  Nonetheless, many NGOs urged the Cambodian government to release the imprisoned opposition members, and establish a neutral political landscape for minor parties to participate, and show voters that the Cambodian government is not a violator of human rights. However, the outcome was quite the opposite, with the Cambodian government showing no intention to take such action while ignoring the criticisms.  From this brief alert, we can see that the future of democracy in Cambodia has been debilitated, making its shadow fragile and uncertain. The issue was deepened by the crackdown of independent media organizations, inducing the Cambodia Daily to be hit with a multi-million-dollar tax and forced to shut down.  According to Lee Morgenbesser, an Australian political analyst who has written multiple journal articles about Cambodia’s political situation, Cambodia is heading towards “Hegemonic Authoritarianism”. Elliot Brennan of the Lowy Institute warned that “If Cambodia democracy is allowed to fall without a whimper from the West, the contagion of despotism will be hard to contain in Southeast Asia.” On the other side, NEC spokesman Dim Sovannarom told the  Khmer Times on August 3, 2021, that “We are working based on the law and we are balanced, not like others say.”  Thus, to the question of whether Cambodia's election is going to be free and fair, the answer lay in the eyes of Cambodian youths and political observers. As a political analyst, Em Sovannara told VOD News: “their participation in the 2022 and 2023 elections is just to beautify the garden of democracy.”  However, without true intention from the government to improve the landscape and image of Cambodia’s democracy by allowing those minor parties to realistically challenge the rule of the 70-year-old Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which retains control of the armed forces, the competition will be little more than just a game, like riding a horse without holding the reins.  Why does Free and Fair Matter?  Yet, while Cambodia’s democracy, inherited to obey and practice since 1993, continues to decay, the end of the CNRP party is not the end of Cambodia’s democracy. Despite nearly four decades of political change, the process of free and fair elections seems to be in reverse. However, if both the government and other minor parties are willing to play the game only as a show to the Cambodian people, then I believe that the hope for free and fair elections will remain at a standstill.  In the game of elections, both actors should play the cards of “free and fair,” demonstrating to the audience that they can be satisfied with ideas of the “win-lose” theory. However, in the Cambodian game of elections, where the minor players are just newly registered entrants to the political system with no power in hand, they will have no sword to fight with CPP. Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan himself told local news that the CPP welcomes the participation of all political parties in the upcoming elections, but that the minor parties “could not be compared to the CPP.” Cambodia’s government always claims to uphold democracy and, thus, free and fair is essential to that democracy. Moreover, to ensure that individual electoral rights can be exercised effectively, and to ensure the commissions are not dominated by pro-government representatives, freedom and fairness must be promoted and implemented.  Thus, to ensure and promote a free and fair election for Cambodia’s future democracy for the next generations, there are three steps that must be taken.  First, the Cambodian government should staff the National Election Commission (NEC) independently in order to avoid rumors of internal bias. After the NEC was nominated by the ruling party CPP, many criticisms were aired: that it’s not neutral or independent and remains under the influence of the ruling party. Simply put, to uphold the integrity of the NEC as the mandated actor to organize, oversee, and monitor all aspects of the elections from registration of voters and parties to ultimately verifying the accuracy of the final results, the election body must not be undermined by a real or perceived bias towards the CPP government. Second, the Cambodian Government must respect the basic principles of human rights and fix its own problems by not weaponizing the criminal code to target the opposite party’s supporters and other human rights activists. The government should give amnesty and allow them to engage with the freedom to establish political associations and participate with any party they choose. To continue to target and threaten them will only act as a threat to the next youth generation and a deterrent to participating in the political landscape. Since the Cambodian government always speaks of upholding democratic principles and respecting human rights, free and fair elections must be demonstrated to the public.  Third, small parties should merge together into one or two parties, as the Human Rights Party (HRP) and SRP (Sam Rainsy Party) did to confront the CPP in 2018 after both parties had endured fewer votes from supporters in 2013. Being a new and small party attempting to compete with the long-ruling CPP, does not arouse much interest in voters. Without a strong string, a kite will easily be cut free. Simply put, people aren't interested in supporting small parties, but they might choose one big party that can oppose the strong one. Conclusion The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some major shortcomings in both Cambodia’s political and health care systems. The resulting economic insecurity and inequality - in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer - makes it hard to maneuver free and fair elections in Cambodia. Moreover, since there is no party that could even touch the tail of the CCP and no neutral national institutions to organize and oversee the elections, the 2023 general election would just be little more than a show, leaving the political landscape in a state of limbo and turmoil. However, if the government and existing minor parties genuinely seek to improve the situation, then anything is possible. Together, they can compete in solidarity and stop criticizing each other, carrying out their jobs to benefit the Cambodian people, as is their responsibility, rather than serving their own interests. Cambodia's democracy may be at a crucial turning point - free and fair elections are possible and the next generation would be proud to follow their legacy.   

Politik

Opinion: Paris Peace Accord Should Move Past Controversy After 30 Years

Written by: Han Noy, a 2rd-year student majoring in International Relations at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia. Edited by: Sao Phal Niseiy, Editor-in-Chief at The Cambodianess and Deputy Editor-in-Chief at Thmey Thmey News Photo Credit: (AFP PHOTO/ERIC FEFERBERG) October 2021 marks 30 years since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, the first multilateral peace deal accomplished following the end of the Cold War. The agreement aimed at ending the decade-long civil war in Cambodia, paving the way for the United Nations to administer the country temporarily through a peacekeeping mission to disarm the conflicting parties and ensure the repatriation of the refugees. In addition, it also provided a legal foundation for the country to organize a free and fair election while enabling it to move toward multi-party democracy, in which those in power are held accountable for upholding and defending human rights.   Thanks to the 1991 Paris Agreement, Cambodia remains at peace with stability and harmony, and with these, it can achieve rapid development. However, even on its 30th birthday, the view toward the agreement has continued to be controversial among politicians and civil society groups. The government side has always claimed that the agreements were irrelevant as the major points of it had been incorporated into the constitution. As seen, the government even removed Paris Peace Agreement Day from the list of the public holidays.  On the other hand, the opposition parties and civil society groups generally argue that it has been still binding upon all signatories including the Kingdom itself as it has not informed all stakeholders of its official decision to annul the agreement.  As a young Cambodian, who was born years after the creation of this agreement, I am disappointed to witness that contemporary Cambodia continues to suffer from endless disagreement and misunderstanding of the 1991 agreement, which, of course, lead to more tensions, discrepancies, and even conflicts among people with different political tendencies.  I think what people should understand here is that the contested historical narrative does not serve the purpose of national development, prosperity, and peace. Instead, by not walking away from this obsolete narrative and myth, what we will achieve is only creating a more polarized and divisive society because we choose conflict over solidarity, tensions over co-existence, and isolation over cooperation. It demonstrates that whether to claim this agreement is dead or not, will lead to nowhere. Therefore, our political leaders and other stakeholders should learn to move beyond this never-ending disagreement. To me, we all must accept the fact that the agreement provided our country with political settlement to end over two decades of armed conflicts. It, more importantly, allowed us to bring forward national reconciliation as well as pursue liberal democracy and human rights. Without this historic event, our country would not have been in harmony as it is right now.  In addition, I also want to accentuate that the Paris Peace Agreement Day should once again be commemorated and remembered. It also should be regarded as the day that Cambodia got out of the political quagmire, and intimately found the way to perpetual peace. By saying this, I believe it is more than possible that each of us can live up to the spirit of both the 1991 Paris Agreement and the 1993 Constitution as they are the founding documents of modern Cambodia. But speaking of the acknowledgment, what I think remains a challenge is whether all political elites, especially those in the ruling party are willing to respect and put into practice the principles stipulated in the Paris Agreement and the Constitution or not.  Moreover, the spirit of honoring the extraordinary day should be cherished, not undermined. It means all Cambodians should be free to commemorate the day without any disturbance or prevention and any efforts to politicize this event should be ended.  More importantly, this historic day should be the day on which our political elites reflect on whether they have already done enough to comply with these documents fully. If they have not, they have both legal and moral obligations to push themself harder to adjust and correct their course of actions. It can manifest their genuine conscience and intention to place national interests at the heart of their positions while trying to avoid the pursuit of their vengeance and political ambition.  In the meantime, I still see the importance of them reinventing their traditional political culture as the current one is already old-fashioned and doesn’t serve the benefits of the people. As we all could see, "instead of working for a better future for Cambodians, politicians of both sides spend their time insulting, mocking, insinuating, accusing, framing, and labeling one another almost for the sake of provocation alone.” Unfortunately, this sort of political culture does not either safeguard or drive development and prosperity, but only leads to destruction, polarization, and reduction. If we continue to be split by different political narratives of the same event, our dream of transforming and achieving inclusive and sustainable growth will just be at stake.  For our compatriots, we all also have a responsibility to uphold the principle of unity and keep in mind that “unity is strength while division is weakness.” History has already revealed that the divisions among us only resulted in power decline and territorial losses.   As we could see these appalling consequences, why can't we just find a way to work together to make our country strong again? Our politicians can do a lot more by dedicating their time and effort to finding solutions to address pressing social challenges, such as rampant corruption, land grabbing, human rights violations as well as environmental degradation, and illegal immigration?  All in all, the spirit of the Paris Agreement should be revived and commemorated, and the documents are still relevant and significant for modern Cambodia. The multiple elucidations perceived by politicians regarding the Paris Peace Accord Day should not continue to be the source of hostilities, political confrontation, and tension within Cambodian society. It rather should be the day that we have “another chance to live, unite, and work together to achieve the Cambodian dream.”  Also, the debate on whether the agreement is invalid or not brings us nowhere. Thus, all stakeholders need to rethink and seek common ground to address socio-economic issues facing contemporary Cambodia. We should not let the past haunt our future; we need to take our past lessons thoughtfully and seek constructive and innovative means to map out and plan for the future. The fate of our country indeed lies in the hands of all Cambodian citizens; it is, therefore, high time for us to be committed to building true national unity, supporting each other, and working together to make Cambodia great again.  Politikoffee accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed. Responsibility rests solely with theindividual authors.                    

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Koffee

It's Time to Reduce the Anarchy of Alcohol Drinking in Cambodia

Written by: Chea Sameang, a graduate with a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a Ph.D. Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia. Photo Credit:  Reece Ferguson The consumption of alcohol seems prevalent in Cambodian society due to the wave of globalization and integration and the lack of state regulations. Even though people understand that alcoholism causes physical and emotional health problems, alcohol use becomes a normal practice for people to relax, enjoy, and relieve their stress or unhappiness. According to the Straits Times, “Cambodia's drinking habits are on the upswing. On average, Cambodians drank 6.1 liters of alcohol a year”. The rising consumption of alcohol in Cambodia has brought about many problems.  For example, the death toll linked to alcohol consumption has increased in recent years. Research by the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health showed that the increasing alcohol consumption use is associated with numerous public health issues, including the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases. In the first half of 2015 alone, there were 2,500 alcohol-related traffic accidents. However, based on my observation, alcohol use does not only affect our health and cause traffic accidents. Oftentimes, when people become alcoholics, they tend to use violence at home and commit other crimes such as rapes. The lack of legal regulations limiting who and at what age people can purchase and consume alcohol is an unresolved issue. Based on a report by the Asia Foundation, in Cambodia, “there is little regulation of the alcohol industry including the advertising of alcohol products and very few” even though there are increasing complaints from civil society groups. Even though some provincial governors have called to pull out alcohol advertising on billboards, it seems just a temporary action to get people’s attention. There is no master plan or long-term plan to address this issue. In fact, government regulations that limit alcohol sales or advertising are largely absent. Thus, if all these issues remain unresolved, and Cambodian youth are drowned in alcohol overuse, how can they help develop their nation? As they are young bamboos that represent the hope of Cambodia, it is important to find ways to address the anarchy of alcohol drinking among young people. The  Causes and Impacts of Alcohol Excessive Use  Alcohol has been found to cause many forms of cancer, ischaemic heart diseases, and strokes. It is also one of the main causes of rapes and domestic violence. However, the draft law is still on the table, not yet passed, and the ideas of banning alcohol use for people under a certain age seem far from achievable anytime soon. I believe there are at least three factors that contribute to the prevalent consumption of alcohol in Cambodia.  First, it is a cultural factor. Elders and youth still think that drinking alcohol is just normal and it is a culture when they want to relax from trauma or stress from work, beers or wines are the first sign they want to taste in order to reduce stress and anxiety they face even they deeply know it would also affect their health and waste their money and times when they over drink. As reported in VOA, one Cambodian man said, “I feel anxious without alcohol”, and “It has become a normal part of my life already”. Even though he knew the impact of alcohol use and had a crash once, he continued to drink and drive.  Second, the lack of law enforcement is another factor contributing to the prevalent use of alcohol. In 2015 a draft law that controls alcohol use and bans youth under 21 to purchase and drink alcohol was sent to the Ministry of the Interior by the Ministry of Health, but it has been ignored since. Thus, when there is no law or rule that would allow people to obey, then they will have much freedom to enjoy what they are already habituated to doing without fear or worry. In 2018, KhmerTimes reported that “around 2,500 traffic incidents are caused by excessive alcohol consumption” each year. Third, it is a social factor. Everywhere alcohol is advertised, and people can drink alcohol anywhere and whenever they want. There are no restrictions to how alcohol can be advertised as well as when and where it should be advertised. Some people are proud to show on Facebook about their parties at KTV, restaurants with many bottles of beer or wine on the table. In 2015, the World Health Organisation reported that “more than one-tenth of Cambodians aged between 8-17 admitted to having consumed alcohol, while 82 percent of Cambodians aged between 18-32 said that they consume alcoholic beverages on a regular basis”.  Moreover, parents enjoy drinking in front of their children and sometimes push them to taste it without explaining to their children that alcohol consumption may lead to significant effects on their health and finances as they will spend a lot of money on alcohol when they become addicted to it.  In many cases, husbands hit their wives after drinking alcohol in front of their kids. A report by the Asia Foundation showed that “Alcohol abuse increases women’s vulnerability to violence which one in five ever-partnered women reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”  What Can We Do? It is unrealistic to ban alcohol use, so I do believe that if Cambodia introduces a law that manages alcohol advertisement and regulates who can or cannot drink or purchase alcohol, things will get better. However, the prevention of alcohol-related problems requires a comprehensive approach, combining information and awareness programs and treatment services with preventive policies adopted at local and national levels.  Even though the government has no plan to adopt the draft law yet, I do hope the law will be adopted soon. It is important to increase the tax on alcohol and introduce legislation that regulates alcohol use so that alcohol-related problems including domestic violence, deaths, and health problems can be reduced. Nevertheless, transforming or changing people’s behavior regarding alcohol use cannot be done overnight. Therefore, we need legislation, vision, and commitment to achieve this aim. Although some provincial governors have recently tried to take action to ban all alcohol advertising on public billboards it was not the long-term proactive solution. To make it legal, the government should take more serious action to ban all billboards of alcohol advertisements across all the 25 provinces, and reduce all alcohol advertising through social media, radio, TV, and movies, including music videos, by calling all media to stop promoting gifts from alcohol purchases.  Moreover, other stakeholders have a vital role to play. Parents must take strong action to reduce their drinking and educate their children by promoting more ideas about the impact of alcohol on their studies, health, finance, and future. Social influencers, schools principals, and teachers must collaborate with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international NGOs to conduct more awareness-raising campaigns about the impact of alcohol on the study, work, and life. They also need to promote more #SocietyWithoutAlcohol campaigns to spread the message widely. As for those who are already addicted to alcohol, each of them can also practice the ideas of reducing alcohol use in their daily life. They can seek support from organizations that work to help people reduce or stop alcoholism.  Without strong precedents to pass and implement the law on alcohol, Cambodia will enter into a state of misery caused by rampant alcoholism. The nation by definition would descend into anarchy. Mass looting, criminality, and violence would consume communities. Therefore, we all must take action to stop the excessive use of alcohol and to restore the dignity and beauty of the nation by practicing the minimal consumption of alcohol for special occasions and or health benefits.  "A society without rampant alcohol use is a society with a bright future."

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Podcast

‘I used to talk about politics on Facebook, but now it’s scary’

By Adam Bemma, Alijazeera 23 Aug 2018 Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Samoeurth Seavmeng sits at a conference table wearing black horn-rimmed glasses. Meng – as she’s known online and to friends – glances at her smartphone and begins to speak to 10 other young Cambodians gathered at Politikoffee, a weekly forum held in a leafy diplomatic enclave of the capital Phnom Penh. “It’s very hard to talk about social media. Sometimes people post fake news on Facebook and sometimes people post true news, so it has advantages and disadvantages,” the 22-year-old activist said. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen often alleges “fake news” to discredit criticism of his ruling Cambodia People’s Party online. He has even threatened that authorities have the technology to track and arrest a Facebook user within six minutes of a post. This has sent a wave of fear and intimidation through Cambodia’s public sphere, where once critical voices have begun to self-censor. Politikoffee is an offline space where Cambodians feel free to debate and voice dissenting views without fear of arrest.  “Before, I used to share and talk a lot about political and social issues on Facebook, but now it’s a little bit scary to talk about these sensitive issues because I’m afraid I’m going to get in trouble,” Meng said. Internet censorship Cambodia’s government monitors social media. Last May, Cambodia’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Information, issued a regulation to monitor Facebook. The government stated that it wants to control information that is deemed to “threaten the defence and security of the nation, relations with other countries, the economy, public order, and discriminates against the country’s customs and traditions.” The Cambodia Center for Independent Media stated in its 2017 report that seven Facebook users were either arrested or sought by authorities for sharing information and opinions on the social media platform. In 2018, an election year, the number is unknown. “The directive was actually released after they were already identifying, monitoring, charging and imprisoning people,” said Naly Pilorge, director at LICADHO, a human rights monitoring group in Cambodia. During the election in July, 17 news websites – including RFA, VOA and Cambodia Daily (already closed down in 2017) – were ordered offline for 48 hours. Critics believe internet censorship is intended to stop outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters inside the country from sharing, liking or commenting on election boycott campaigns. “The directive came afterwards to legalise what they were doing in practice already. And it changed the habits of the average [social media] user,” Pilorge added. “The people online that we interact with, we see that there are differences. Definitely people are afraid, hesitant, paralysed. Ourselves included. We’re cautious.” In the lead-up to this year’s election, all independent media was shut down. The main opposition leader was jailed for alleged treason. Two former Radio Free Asia reporters and an Australian filmmaker were jailed for alleged espionage. Several human rights and political activists languish inside Cambodia’s prisons – guilty until proven innocent according to LICADHO. “What you’ve seen over the past year and a half is, for example, a minister or the prime minister decides a post is critical or is unacceptable and will immediately denounce a Facebook post,” Pilorge said. “Within 48 hours this individual is being arrested, charged, imprisoned in pre-trial detention and sometimes convicted.” Increasing regulation  Though the election is over, censorship online is prevalent. Prime Minister Hun Sen was re-elected last month in a vote criticised by the UN as fundamentally flawed. “If the situation for freedom of expression worsens, maybe we will have something that we can do together in order to inform [Cambodians] which tool or application they can use without getting into any trouble,” Meng said. Cambodian digital security trainer Moses Ngeth teaches journalists, activists and human rights campaigners how to secure accounts, and protect data online.  “I train them how to do very basic device security for smartphones, password protection. I tell them to be careful when posting something to social media and not to share any personal information,” he said.  Ngeth believes this new mandate will give the ruling CPP legitimacy to pass its much-anticipated draft cybercrime law. “People cannot talk on the radio, or on television. It leaves only Facebook. That’s why they increased regulation of social media,” Ngeth said. Cambodians can still be arrested, charged, jailed or fined for Facebook posts under criminal defamation, royal defamation laws, or incitement. “I think it’s natural to have fear, but when I see someone is arrested for saying something on social media I don’t feel comfortable. I think that people should feel free to express themselves,” said Kounila Keo, a Cambodian blogger and communications consultant. Prime Minister Hun Sen has amassed over 10 million followers on Facebook. Sam Rainsy, the exiled former CNRP leader who ran in the 2013 elections, claims that many are not even Cambodian and may be fake online profiles generated abroad – an accusation the prime minister refutes. “What [the prime minister] said … ‘When you post, I can know the location’ – it’s one of the funniest things I’ve heard from him,” Ngeth said. “Using Facebook to know the location, it’s not possible,” Ngeth said. Prime Minister Hun Sen and members of the CPP are using Facebook to bypass traditional news media such as newspapers, radio and television, viewed as hostile to the government, to reach Cambodians directly with their messages. “The prime minister and other public figures campaign on Facebook,” said Ngeth. We're not doing anything to harm society. We're doing it to make society a better place, especially for youth to be able to share ideas and contribute. SAMOEURTH SEAVMENG, KNOWN AS MENG, ACTIVIST Back at the Politikoffee debate, the upcoming cybercrime law is considered for discussion in a future forum. Meng wants members to be able to communicate online without being punished for spreading “fake news” for commenting on the draft law. “Now we’re thinking about [developing] a new tool, or a new kind of app, that we can be sure will be safe for us to talk about any issue because we mostly discuss politics,” Meng said. “We’re not doing anything to harm society. We’re doing it to make society a better place, especially [for] youth to be able to share ideas and contribute.” Original Link: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/8/23/i-used-to-talk-about-politics-on-facebook-but-now-its-scary

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