Week 555 – 2008-04-13: On the Way towards the National Elections in July

Posted on 15 April 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 555 |

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 555

While the temperature in Cambodia is rising as it does every year when the dry season draws to an end and the rainy season approaches, this year the social climate is also heating up: towards the national elections in July.

There were some deplorable incidents during the past weeks – and again the occasion to remember the unsolved circumstances relating to the grenade attack in front of the former National Assembly building eleven years ago. While some hold the opinion that the deplorable recent events are of a personal nature, others perceive them as political. We refer to such cases as the reported death threat against a journalist who had written critically about an eucalyptus plantation, a bomb planted in Kompong Chhnang at the house of an ADHOC activist, and the threats by telephone to a journalist in Battambang, on whose premises there were also AK-47 cartridges placed. The perceived threats extend wider than to the persons immediately targeted.

Fortunately, Cambodia is not experiencing anything similar to the nightmare the people of Zimbabwe are suffering, where the inflation rate during the last year has been around 200,000 – two hundred thousand! – percent, and the results of the 29 March 2008 elections are still not published, while the authorities alone are in control of the ballot boxes and the high court is not urging the government to quickly publish the results. It is very welcome that the Cambodian Prime Minister has declared, “if we watch television, there are many battles every day which cause deaths and separation” in other countries, and therefore he “has called again on authorities of all levels to maintain security for the process of free and fair elections without violence, threats, and intimidation, so that the elections will proceed smoothly in an atmosphere where everyone is safe, and he asked the local authorities to provide neutrality to all political parties in the upcoming election campaign.”

Free and fair elections do not only require the absence of violence, threats, and intimidation, but also a public debate about contested or controversial issues, based on logical arguments and openly accessible information. For example, the issues of rising prices for fuel and for food are especially hot now. This is quite natural, as the price of essential goods affects all citizens – with more severe consequences for the economically weaker sections of society, especially for the poor. When the cost of oil had radically increased over the last few years worldwide, with secondary effects on the costs of producing and distributing food, it does not help to just blame domestic factors. Without a broad discussion of possible alternative economic models in the nation, it seems to be difficult to avoid an ever growing crisis also in Cambodia – as it is happening also in other countries.

But rational discussion requires that related data and facts are available to the political decision makers, and also to the affected public. We mirrored already twice during the current year that the Prime Minister strongly appealed to save energy – on 4 January 2008 calling on state institutions, especially the military, to reduce wasting fuel, giving at that time examples how such savings can be redirected “to be used for the public sector, such as for the construction of roads and irrigation systems” and expressing the hope “that the army will act as a model in saving fuel.” – Again, on 13 March 2008, the Prime Minister was reported to have made another appeal, this time focusing on the use of electricity, not only giving advice on how to save electricity when using air conditioners and street lights, but also warning those employees of Electricité du Cambodge who are accomplices to stealing electricity.

Probably the overall results of such appeals could be improved, and wider cooperation all over society could be increased, if the relevant authorities would publish data about what has been achieved, and what could be done better. For example, the suppliers of electricity, facing a shortfall in their capacity to supply what is demanded, could publish plans when and where they will have to cut electricity. It would then be easy to verify – or deny – a report that “electricity is often off at the areas of the poor, but it is on seven days a week, all day uninterrupted, in the areas of powerful officials.” At present, the situation is not transparent at all, in terms of fair distribution of power cuts, savings achieved, or other aspects of adherance to the advice of the Prime Minister. For an orderly, just, and peaceful development of society, especially in times before an election, transparency is crucial.

Transparency of argument is also important in international affairs, especially when it relates to important issues in the public debate on national affairs. It is reasonable to expect that some international discussions about the Olympic games and historical and present problems in the People’s Republic of China will continue to be in the public press. As the issues are very complex, it is important that detailed information is available and considered, and that arguments are not allowed to spin off emotionally, based on wrong presuppositions. So far, some important positions have been misrepresented, which has confused or deepened confrontation. Genuine efforts at mutual understanding and clarity would be welcome.

An example of clearly analyzing and keeping distinct two issues was given by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – reportedly the first top political leader of a “Western” country who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He is quoted by Reuters to have said, speaking in Chinese and addressing Chinese students in Beijing on 8 April 2008:

“Some have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of recent problems in Tibet. As I said in London on Sunday, I do not agree.”

But the Australian leader, who has said he wants more candid discussion with China about human rights, also told the students that he had worries about Tibet that he would raise with their country’s leaders.

The Chinese authorities are understandably upset about the rioting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, which started on 14 March. They blame the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, for having instigated these riots, which, in the following days, spread also to the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan [ 甘肃, 青海, 四川 ] where ethnic Tibetan minorities live. However, information about what actually happened in these provinces cannot easily be verified, as the Chinese government curtailed Internet connections and the travel of foreign journalists. – Also, this is a long simmering issue. Following the Communist revolution in China in 1949, China established military control over Tibet in 1951. The goverrnment suppressed a first major uprising in 1959; this reportedly resulted in thousands of deaths and around 80,000 Tibetans fleeing into exile, the majority in India. In the years since then, the Dalai Lama has called for non-violence and dialogue – and he has not called for independence for Tibet, but rather for acceptance of the cultural and religious traditions of the Tibetan people within the People’s Republic of China, which the Chinese government has suppressed.

In response to news about riots in Tibet and in Chinese provinces with Tibetan minorities, the Dalai Lama publicly distanced himself from violent forms of protest and declared that he does not favor disrupting or boycotting the 2008 Olympics. But the quest for the respect for the cultural and religious identities remains – as a non-violent dialogue, and not as an expectation that national borders would change. Again, careful listening, informed analysis, and looking clearly at the situation is important. It is not useful to make general statements about provinces improperly wanting to become independent. Rather, the quest by the ethnic Tibetan populations inside of Tibet and in other Chinese provinces to have their cultural and religious traditions respected is parallel to the efforts of some Cambodian people, who do not seek to change the established borders between Cambodia and Vietnam, but are concerned that the ethnic Khmer minorities in the Southern part of Vietnam should have their cultural and religious traditions respected.

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