Challenging Times – What Kind of Change to Come? – Sunday, 25.1.2009

Posted on 26 January 2009. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 596 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

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The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 596

On 20 January 2009, when Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America, change started to come. Never before had so many people around the world be able, through TV and the Internet, to participate form afar – never before was also so much interest expressed, in the new presidency of this country by a crowd of more than a million people in Washington, and many more around the globe.

To refer here to these events may be an occasion to remember the years of Administrative Reform and Judicial Reforms in Cambodia, and the efforts to see spokespersons authorized in the different sections of the Cambodian administration, so that the Cambodian public will not have to read, time and again, that one official refers an inquiry to the next, and the next does not have time to speak to a journalist. And the public, the people – “The Cambodian people are the masters of their own country” according to Article 51 of the Constitution – are not informed what is being done and why – even in such important situations that they trusted the commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces for many years, and now he is no more there, and the population – civilian and in uniform – does not know why they should withdraw the confidence they had held for many years.

During the long and difficult election campaign, there had been different slogans leading to the inauguration, becoming more and more specific: “Hope and change” – “Hope is not enough” – “Change you can believe in” – not only believe in, but real “Change we need.” And change started to happen. First of all there is an openness for communication, through the media, to the people. It was reported that the new president visited the White House media quarters and press office – places that the former president is said to have avoided – because there, people ask questions and expect clear answers.

When the new president signed some executive orders in front of TV cameras, before he signed them, he read parts of them and explaining what is meant, for the public to understand. And it was announced that e-mail alerts and Internet blogs would be used for “timely and in-depth content” about the administration’s policies:

“The President’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. We will publish all non-emergency legislation to the Web site for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.”

And in terms not only of changed style, but also of content, the president made some fundamental policy declarations in his inaugural address:

“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

One cannot but remember that Prime Minister Hun Sen had made similar declarations in relation to the ongoing violence by the rich or on behalf of the powerful, when he had said already in 2002:

“We are conscious that corruption in the public machinery, be it judiciary or administrative or any other, increases transaction costs for everyone and reduces predictability in law enforcement and implementation of government’s policies… The government believes that enactment of adequate laws and regulations to prevent and punish corruption is crucial for addressing this problem. In this spirit, the Royal Government is committed to finalize the draft of the Anti-Corruption Law before the end of June 2003.”

In December 2005, the Prime Minister had warned that if illegal land seizures were not brought under control, they could lead to a farmers’ revolution.

And – interestingly enough – it was the Chinese People’s Daily Online which reported on 13 February 2007 the concerns of the Cambodian Prime Minister (we missed to see this reported in the local press):

“The land grabbers dare to get a lot of land illegally while we have always appealed again and again to stop. The land grabbers are not simple people, and they must be powerful people in the government. I asked the question, do they dare to conduct a coup d’etat in the future?” And he is quoted to have replied himself that they really dare to do so. “So before they conduct a coup d’etat, we need to take action against them.”

We do not have an explanation for what is happening now – in spite of these words.

When the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch had raise critical question about many countries, including Cambodia, the leader of the Cambodian government’s Human Rights Commission is quoted to have quickly dismissed their statement, elaborated with 20 detailed documents, as “defaming the country with lies. – I refuse all of the accusations, they are just trying to make up things.”

Human Rights Watch had also criticized then USA. The new president’s executive orders to bring change to the detainees at Guantánamo Bay and to the harsh interrogation methods, some of which the new attorney general – the US minister of justice – called torture, remove some of these accusations.

In the meantime, when people from 234 families, to be evicted from land, assured to them by a court order, were protesting, they where shot at – not by illegal private thugs hired by a company, but by members of a Military Police unit.

The Dey Krahom Community on 24.1.2009

The Dey Krahom Community on 24.1.2009


Yesterday, on Saturday, the protracted negotiations – with residents of the Dey Krahom area in Phnom Penh, who claimed that the compensation offered to them for being removed 20 km away, with no school for their children, and no possibility to continue to earn a living like now, where they used to live since many years, are different from the original promise for new arrangements in place – came to an end. They were replaced by destruction and forced eviction.
The police and the people

The police and the people.


Teargas was used, and electric batons – their existence in Cambodia had frequently been denied by the authorities.
Teargas

Teargas


Electric baton

Electric baton


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This action was taken in support of the 7NG Group, the parent company of 7NG construction. The pictures of their website shows big villas on wide green lawns – housing for the few very rich. There website has even a section Code of Conduct. But when one clicks on it, it responds: “We are sorry… – This webpage is under construction.” Is it an irony, or is it just the truth that it shows two big construction machines at work?

dk-kb-grader
According to public discussion, neither the transfer of this public land – originally “3.60 hectares of social land concession granted by the Royal Government of Cambodia to the seven Dey Krahom communities” – into private business use is procedurally and legally very transparent. Nor does the 7NG Group presented detailed plans for the commercial use of the land – except that it is for high class housing and maybe a shopping center – rumors in the absence of transparency. The Mirror has regularly reported information that the construction sector of the Cambodian economy is facing severe problems. The construction boom in Phnom Penh during the last years resulted in many high rise and high price buildings being constructed or being under construction, which now have to be scaled down or abandoned. But the 7NG company can go ahead?

Phnom Penh has not seen anything similar to what what President Obama could say to a new senator, who has dedicated herself to public, not high priced, housing:

“During her career, Kirsten Gillibrand has been a strong voice for transparency and reform in government and shares the belief that government should be open, accessible and work for all of our citizens. In Congress and as special counsel for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, she worked to strengthen public and private partnerships to invest in infrastructure and New York’s economy.”

Where are the 7NG plans to be located in view of the warning, quoted by the Chinese international media? Are they among the group about which Prime Minister Hun Sen has “always appealed again and again to stop” – or is the Cambodian government maintaining the position nationally, which President Obama has denounced as wrong internationally: “that power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please… Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

The experience of many people to be marginalized and to be pushed further out, for the benefit of powerful and rich interests, will not help to build a human, peaceful, an just society. This is not how the hearts and minds of people can be won.
dk-kb-distressed
People close by were watching: Will they be next?
dk-np-whonext
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[Pictures: courtesy of Karl Bille, LICADHO, Monika Nowaczyk, Nestle Poell G. Lagaya, Makenzi Travis]

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Links and Lessons from Far Away Africa – Sunday, 28.12.2008

Posted on 30 December 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 592 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 592

When we mirrored, on 26 December 2008, that Captain Moussa Dadis Camara had declared himself president of Guinea, after a coup following the death of President Lansana Conte, 74, I first did not think that this deserved much attention in the Mirror.

Then I remembered some connections: on 19 June 2008 we had mirrored that the Cambodian Prime Minister had decided to sell 120,000 tonnes of rice and to send agricultural experts to Guinea, responding to a request by the prime minister of Guinea. At that time I had wondered what kind of link might exist to this small country in Africa – hardly anybody knows where it is located.

But already in 2001 an ambassador of Guinea had presented his credentials and diplomatic relations were established – though Cambodia does not have an embassy anywhere in Africa, while having diplomatic relations with 17 countries in Africa.

In March 2008, 15 artists from the circus school in Guinea “Centre d’Art Acrobatique Keïta Fodéba” were in Cambodia for 3 months.

In November 2008, during the opening of the Least Developed Countries Ministerial Conference in Siem Reap, the Prime Minister spoke about new possibilities of cooperation at a time of rising prices for rice: “I have looked at the list of participants and it reminds me of a number of countries in Africa that I visited in the times when I was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs [1979 to 1990]. Recently Guinea contacted Cambodia to purchase some agricultural products. This has made me think that in time of crisis there are always opportunities as at the time of fuel and food crisis, Cambodia could see the opportunity of expanding production to provide food for both local and the world.”

Research brought to light more and more facts that seem worthwhile to consider in relation to Cambodia. Guinea is obviously a country which has had a lot of problems. The death of the president was considered by a group of younger military leaders as a chance to act They seem to have seen no other possibility to rectify the situation but a coup d’etat – against the constitution and the laws of their country, though completely without bloodshed or using force.

What had happened?

Guinea is in West Africa, about one third bigger than Cambodia, but with only 10 million people compared to Cambodia’s 14 million. It is rich in minerals and has the world’s biggest reserves of bauxite, which is the basis to create aluminum. At present it is fourth in the world in bauxite production, after Australia, Brazil and China. It has also diamonds, gold, iron, nickel, and uranium.

Since its independence from France in 1958 – five years after Cambodia – it has had only two presidents: Sékou Touré until 1984, and General Lansana Conte, who seized power after the death of his predecessor; the support of the armed forces was essential for his power throughout the years. During these years, multi-party elections were held for the first time in 1993 when General Conte, as head of the military government, was elected president of a civilian government – this was the same year that the elections organized by UNTAC were held in Cambodia. Conte was reelected in 1998 and in 2003, but all three elections were said to have had irregularities. In the meantime, an electoral term was extended from 5 to 7 years, after the president’s party had won 91 of the 114 seats. It is said that “he ruled the country with an iron fist for 24 years.”

Guinea’s immense riches have attracted the major mining companies from different countries: AngloGold Ashanti (from South Africa), Billiton (the world’s largest mining company, from Australia – since 2006, Billiton is also conducting bauxite exploration in Mondolkiri, with “the exclusive rights to negotiate a mining agreement with the government” at the end of their study, and there is also a Billiton Petroleum office in Phnom Penh), Global Alumina (from the USA), Rio Tinto (UK and Australia), and RusAl (from Russia). Some pictures show how the bauxite is collected by big machines, and then transported to be shipped out of the country. A major contractor on the Guinean side says:

“In collaboration with the Government and people of Guinea, Guinea Alumina Corporation will develop a world class alumina business that provides value to shareholders, sustained economic and social benefits to the people of Guinea, and a quality supply of alumina to the world.”

But in spite of such lofty declarations and the riches of the country, Guinea is listed in position 202 when comparing the per capita income in different countries – lower than Cambodia. Cambodia is in position 180 on the same list of 225 countries.

A lack of transparency about how “the people of Guinea” benefit from these riches, compared to the share taken by the international companies, led to dissatisfaction, accusations of high level corruption, and strikes in 2006 and 2007, and violent protests.

When Captain Moussa Dadis Camara declared himself president and suspended the constitution, he stated as the justification the mismanagement and corruption of the former government. He created a 32-member National Council for Democracy and Development – replacing the ministers with 26 military officers and 6 civilians – and promised to hold elections in two years. There had been tensions in the military since several months, when younger officers had expressed their opposition to the corrupt practices of some of the higher level officers.

During the coup nobody was arrested, but the members of government were dismissed, as well as 22 generals close to the former political powers. It is reported that Captain Moussa Dadis Camara met with politicians, religious leaders, trade union representatives, and members of civil society, declaring that the main motive for taking power is to fight corruption and to secure the interests of the country: all contracts with international companies, which had invested billions of dollars, will be canceled for review, to root out corruption; whoever has misappropriated state assets or personally benefited from public resources will be punished.

The international reaction? A voice representing the international companies said: “It is very likely that the new regime may seek to extort monies from current operators and prospectors and that a new democratic regime may try to impose heavier royalties and taxes,” even calling it “extortionary pressure” if the new government would try to negotiate more balanced agreements about their own resources being sold abroad.

It is interesting that voices from the international community, which had not questioned the corruption involved in the arrangements of “exporting” the mineral wealth of the country without transparency and without benefits for the people, is now raising mainly the concern about having violated the results of the electoral system of the country.

It is remarkable, however, that President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, one of the neighboring countries, is calling to recognize and to support the new government, because of its positive goals.



Considering this history of Guinea – allegations of corruption based on bad governance and misuse of resources, which finally led to an effort for a radical new beginning – it is appropriate to remember that Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly spoken about his concerns of a similar situation for Cambodia: growing dissatisfaction by people who do not see that the society provides them justice, who might resort to attempts to bring about a radical change. On the other hand, he has also raised concerns that people who see their chances of illegal enrichment too much controlled by the government might attempt to grab power in order to exercise their greed without restraint. These statements shall not be forgotten.

In 1999, the Prime Minister had said: “Should we not manage the land issue in a good manner, we might have to face a farmers’ revolution.” He mentioned this again in 2004, addressing the National Forum on Land Management in the presence of national and international representatives.

In 2002, opening the Consultative Group Meeting between representatives of the Cambodian Government and representatives of cooperating countries and international institutions, he said:

“We are conscious that corruption in the public machinery, be it judiciary or administrative or any other, increases transaction costs for everyone and reduces predictability in law enforcement and implementation of the government’s policies… The government believes that enactment of adequate laws and regulations to prevent and punish corruption is crucial for addressing this problem. In this spirit, the Royal Government is committed to finalize the draft of the Anti -Corruption Law before the end of June 2003.”

In February 2007, the Chinese People’s Daily Online quoted the Cambodian Prime Minister:

“The land grabbers dare to get a lot of land illegally while we have always appealed again and again to stop… The land grabbers are not simple people, they must be powerful people in the government. I asked the question, do they dare to conduct a coup d’etat in the future?” And he is quoted to have replied himself that they really dare to do so. “So before they conduct a coup d’etat, we need to take action against them.”

What happened in Guinea should not happen in Cambodia. The political action necessary has been pointed out by the Prime Minister clearly enough.

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