Author Archives: Kara E Wong Wong

News in Review: Cambodia – December 8, 2015

Yem Chhrin is escorted by police officers into the provincial court in Battambang province, Cambodia, on Thursday. Photograph: Reuters

Cambodia News in Review, December 8, 2015

Cambodia’s deteriorating political climate has attracted international political and media attention. U.S. and EU lawmakers have demanded that Prime Minister Hun Sen drops the arrest warrant against opposition leader Sam Rainsy [of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)], who remains in exile in France. The impact of climate change on the future of Cambodia and other low-lying developing nations is being addressed this week at the UN climate change summit in Paris. Also in the news, an unlicensed medical practitioner has been sentenced to 25 years in prison after 270 residents in Roka commune in Battambang province are infected with HIV.

Cambodia Contemplates its Future In Relation to Climate Change

The UN climate change summit in Paris is taking place from November 30 to December 11, 2015. At the summit, Cambodia and other developing countries are expected to appeal to developed countries that produce greater carbon emissions for assistance to mitigate the impact of climate change on their own countries.

The credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s recently listed Cambodia as the country (out of 116) most impacted by climate change, with its government holding the lowest rate for “creditworthiness.” The United Nations lists it as one of the top 10 countries in the world most susceptible to climate change, notably as a low-land country prone to droughts and flooding. Nearly 74 percent of Cambodian workers are in agriculture, which has endured major losses from drought and flooding. Some communities in Cambodia have already been trying out disaster and climate change mitigation education and training programs for a few years. Since 2011, nearly 33 secondary schools and 15,000 farming families in Tbaung Khmum and Siem Reap provinces have participated in climate change and disaster mitigation education and training programs.

Bopha, Phorn. Underprepared Cambodia Vulnerable to Climate Change. Voice of America. November 27, 2015.

Danaparamita, Aria. Youth Gather to Talk About Climate Change. The Cambodia Daily. November 30, 2015.

Naomi-Collett Ritz. Climate Change Curriculum. Khmer Times. December 1, 2015.

Unlicensed Medical Practitioner Sentenced to Prison for Causing Mass HIV Outbreak in Battambang Province

After 270 residents were infected in the rural Roka commune in Battambang province, Yem Chrin, an unlicensed medical practitioner, was found guilty of “operating without a medical license, intentionally spreading HIV and torture and acts of cruelty that result in death with aggravating circumstances.” Chrin has been sentenced to 25 years in prison. Unlicensed healthy workers and clinics are common in rural communities where access to state healthcare is lacking. Nine unlicensed doctors were ordered in February to shut down their practices. Villagers have complained that is it now significantly harder to find a provider, especially if they may have an emergency in the middle of the night. Moreover, due to high levels of corruption in the country, Cambodians often do not trust their doctors to be well-trained, and will seek medical advice in neighboring countries when they can. The lack of licensed practitioners still has roots in the period of the Khmer Rouge regime when physicians and their families, along with professionals including scientists, teachers, engineers, and lawyers, were eradicated.

Hour, Hum. Cambodian Health Worker Sentenced to 25 Years For HIV Infections. Radio Free Asia. December 3, 2015.

Hunt, Katie and Rebecca Wright. Unlicensed Cambodian doctor jailed for mass HIV outbreak. CNN. December 3, 2015.

Reaksmey, Hul. Doctor Who Caused Mass HIV Outbreak in Cambodia Sentenced to 25 Years. Voice of America. December 4, 2015.

Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy Remains in Exile, as Political Talks Deteriorate

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy remains in France in exile, as an arrest warrant awaits him back home in Cambodia. CNRP members boycotted a parliamentary session last week, citing concerns over Rainsy’s warrant and lawmakers’ safety, after two CNRP lawmakers were beaten severely following a session by pro-CPP (Cambodian People’s Party, the ruling government) military members in civilian clothes. Sixteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat and Republican, penned a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, relaying their “deep concerns about efforts to disrupt the development of democracy in your country” [Mara, The Cambodia Daily]. Members of the European Parliament passed a resolution in which they threatened to review their substantial aid package to Cambodia unless Rainsy is able to freely return. Foreign Minister Hor Namhong seemed unfazed by the West’s pressure while at a recent charity event in Phnom Penh. He remarked at the event: “The E.U. parliamentarians and the U.S. parliamentarians have their rights [but] I see and believe that our country under the leadership of Hun Sen is advancing to build our country to grow in all sectors… With funds or without funds, we will continue to advance. From now and onward, Cambodia will always progress forward and not go backward or stand still. It always goes forward from one month to another and from one year to another” [Mara, The Cambodia Daily]. The political collapse in Cambodia has gained increased international media attention, as the International New York Times published a piece from Ou Virak, president of Future Forum, a policy research institute in Phnom Penh, calling for a change in leadership in Cambodia, and not from the opposition CNRP. Cambodia’s youth, who are technologically savvy, were heavily mobilized for the 2013 election. They make up approximately 3.5 million of 9.5 million eligible voters in Cambodia, and continue to advocate in online and public forums for political change. Cambodians are increasingly frustrated that critical issues nationally are not being addressed by politicians, including rising economic inequality, and electoral and institutional reform.

Dara, Mech and Alex Willemyns. Opposition Lawmakers To Boycott Assembly. The Cambodia Daily. November 30, 2015.

Dara, Mech and Alex Willemyns. US Lawmakers Call for End to ‘Persecution’ of Opposition. The Cambodia Daily. December 7, 2015.

Thul, Prak Chan. TV anchor seeks to be Cambodia’s political peacemaker to avoid conflict. Reuters. November 30, 2015.

Virak, Ou. Cambodians Deserve Better. The International New York Times. December 4, 2015.

News in Review: Cambodia – November 24, 2015

Street scene in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Photo: World Bank

Cambodia’s political rapprochement has come to an end. The country’s opposition leader, Sam Rainsy of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has been removed from parliament and faces arrest over comments he made against the foreign minister in 2008. These events are the latest in a country facing amplified political tension, including the brutal assaults of two CNRP lawmakers who have been hospitalized for a month. Rhona Smith, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, warns that if the country keeps going in this direction, Cambodia and the human rights of its people are on the cusp of a “dangerous tipping point,” given that “the past weeks have been marked by a number of worrying developments: increasing tensions between the two principal political parties; incidences of violence; intimidation of individuals; and resort to offensive language in the political discourse.”

Cambodian Opposition Leader Faces Arrest Following Removal from Office, Cries “Constitutional Coup”

An arrest warrant has been issued for Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy, citing “public defamation and instigation of discrimination.” In 2008, Rainsy alleged that current Foreign Minister Hor Namhong was tied to the Khmer Rouge and ran a prison for the regime. In 2011, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Rainsy in-abstentia, sentenced him to two years in prison and fined him 8 million riels ($2000 USD). Namhong’s lawyer is now pursuing the dormant defamation case against Rainsy, who has since been stripped by the Cambodian People’s Party-led (CPP) parliament of his lawmaker status, including his right to immunity. The day before the arrest warrant was issued, Rainsy stated during his visit to Japan that he was unsure if the ruling-CPP would commit to holding elections in 2016 and 2017. This comment prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to threaten legal action against Rainsy. The CNRP President has called the move a “constitutional coup when you want to arrest the leader of the opposition” and is postponing his return to Cambodia from South Korea, citing “safety concerns.”

Cambodia: political crackdown reaching a ‘dangerous tipping point’ warns UN rights expert. UN News Centre. November 23, 2015.

Tha, Thai. Cambodia Denies Sam Rainsy Arrest Warrant Was Politically Motivated. Radio Free Asia. November 19, 2015.

Vannarin, Neou. “Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy Stays Abroad as Key Opposition Figures Head Home.” Voice of America. November 23, 2015.

Myanmar Election Influences Democratic Movements in the Region, Shines Light on Cambodia’s Tense Political Situation

Myanmar’s election was closely followed in Cambodia, from major news outlets to Cambodian youth discussing the events on Facebook, and many contemplating what it means for Cambodia’s political future. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy applauded the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) “landslide victory” in Myanmar. He expressed that the election “shows, once more, that the days of all authoritarian regimes worldwide are counted… the wind of freedom that is blowing throughout the world will also reach Cambodia in the near future.” Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has ruled Cambodia for 30 years. He has stated that he will run for a fifth term in the country’s 2018 general election. Looking to Cambodia’s next election and running against Hun Sen, Rainsy likened himself to the NLD’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Critics dismiss the comparisons, claiming that Rainsy is too polarizing, and that he has fled his country in the past, unlike Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Spokesman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Sok Eysan, claimed that, “The opposition party in Myanmar has a clear patriotic spirit. Every activity of the opposition party is in the Myanmar people’s interest. But the opposition party in Cambodia is completely different… It is 180 degrees different… The opposition party in Cambodia does not have patriotic ideals but ideals of revenge, to block powerful countries from offering aid to Cambodia” [Cuddy, The Phnom Penh Post].

Chandara, Yang and Morm Moniroth. Cambodia Can Benefit From Lessons Learned From Myanmar Vote: Analysts. Radio Free Asia. November 12, 2015.

Cuddy, Alice and Meas Sokchea. “Myanmar opposition victory resonates in Cambodia.” The Phnom Penh Post. November 11, 2015.

Vannarin, Neou. Hun Sen Decries Opposition’s Cambodia-Myanmar Comparison. Voice of America. November 12, 2015.

Cambodia’s Mass Faintings Continue

Cambodia’s mass fainting episodes continue to rise. On November 19, a farmer sprayed insecticide on rice in Kandal province, prompting 100 workers in a nearby South Korean-owned toy factory to become weak, dizzy, vomit, and faint. Thus far in 2015, 1200 Cambodian factory workers have fainted. The faintings tend to occur with factory workers— vulnerable to sub-par and stressful working conditions, poverty, and malnutrition—and the episodes are considered to be a “mass psychogenic illness” among the workers. Earlier this month, one garment worker died and 21 garment workers were hospitalized after a mass fainting at a Chinese-owned factory. Students are now suffering from fainting episodes. On November 14, Cham Muslim students fainted at their boarding house in Tbong Khmum province. The female students told police that they saw shadows of people underneath the stilted building, prior to the mass fainting. The possibility of a poison attack is being investigated in the community, which is facing increased discrimination against Muslims. Their nearby school, which was built by and intended for Muslims, has previously been subjected to vandalism. The school’s owner claims that he received a death threat this month, threatening his life if he did not turn the school over to the Cham people in the village. The police are still investigating the motives behind the attack and have not made any arrests.

David, Sen. “Muslim schoolgirls ‘gassed’ in Tbong Khmum.” The Phnom Penh Post. November 17, 2015.

Mass faintings strike Cambodian factories. The Nation: Pakistan. November 21, 2015.

Sokhean, Ben. Death Threat Preceded Mass Fainting. The Cambodia Daily. November 19, 2015.

Sokhean, Ben. Mass Fainting at Factory After Farmer Uses Insecticide Nearby. The Cambodia Daily. November 20, 2015.

News in Review: Cambodia – November 10, 2015

Photo captured by the AP, and published in the Bangkok Post on November 4, 2015. Chay Sarith and Mao Hoeun, two of the three military soliders who “confessed” to assaulting two opposition lawmakers, are escorted to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court by police officers on November 4 (AP photo).

Cambodia’s “Culture of Dialogue” has dwindled to a culture of fear as Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) remain at odds. Military soldiers have come forward and confessed to assaulting CNRP lawmakers, who remain hospitalized in Bangkok. The CNRP is pressuring the ruling CPP not to relinquish land to Vietnam, in a long-standing border dispute. Cambodia looks to be competitive in the global market, and China recently provided Cambodia with “shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.”

Cambodian Soldiers Confess to Beating Lawmakers; No Arrests Made

Three Cambodian military soldiers turned themselves in and confessed to beating two Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers on October 26. The lawmakers, who remain in a Bangkok hospital, were attacked after leaving a parliamentary session. They were dragged from their cars and suffered extensive injuries, including facial lacerations, a torn eardrum, and broken bones. The off-duty soldiers, who have not been arrested, claim that they were reacting to the lawmakers after they hurled racist insults at the soldiers. The lawmakers deny the claims and say that more than three men were involved in the beatings and remain at-large, including the “masterminds” of the attacks. The investigating committee, composed of eight high-ranking police and ministry officials, has stated that it will not investigate the incident further. The CNRP says it will boycott future parliamentary sessions unless stricter security measures are provided for its politicians. Concerned about the future of justice and democracy in the country, Human Rights Watch is calling on the Cambodian government to “ask the Cambodia field office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct an independent investigation into the attack, and make a commitment to act on its findings.”

Cambodia: Chilling Account of Attacks on Legislators.” Human Rights Watch. October 31, 2015.

Kethya Tha, Samean Yun and Hong Sokunthea. “Cambodia Orders Security Strengthened For All Politicians After Assault on Lawmakers.” Radio Free Asia. November 5, 2015.

Narim, Khuon, and Mech Dara. “Hun Sen Says Lawmakers Hurled Insults Before Beatings.” The Cambodia Daily. November 6, 2015.

Three Cambodian soldiers confess to beating lawmakers.” PressTV. November 5, 2015.

 Cambodia faces Obstacles in Ascending to the Global Market

The ASEAN Economic Community will be formed in two months, with hope that Cambodia’s unskilled labor population will transition into a manufacturing hub. ASEAN’s free trade zone will be led by professions with “internationally recognized skills,” such as medicine, engineering, accounting, architecture, and tourism. Cambodia performs well in tourism, but less so in the other fields, signaling a need to strengthen schooling and vocational training in the country (which is still reeling from the effects of the Khmer Rouge period). It is expected that Thailand and Vietnam will continue to produce large-scale goods, while Cambodia could produce smaller-scale manufactured items. This would take pressure off the garment industry, which took off after Cambodia joined the WTO in 2004. Moreover, the AEC will give way to a regionally liberalized economy, including the freedom of movement with people and goods. This is expected to open up jobs and counter the demand for human trafficking and the smuggling of people.

Chan, Sok. Chinese Auto Group Plans Factory Here. Khmer Times. November 1, 2015.

Hunt, Luke. “Cambodia Pins Economic Hopes on AEC.” Voice of America. November 1, 2015.

Kunmakara, May. “Shaping Up Requires Action.” Khmer Times. November 1, 2015.

Cambodia and Vietnam Dispute over Border Demarcation

On October 27-28, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, and their respective ambassadors met in in Ho Chi Minh City for their eighth meeting on border province cooperation and development. The meeting upheld the countries’ commitment to bilateral relations and trade. Trade between the two countries increased to $2.3 billion USD this year. And, Vietnam is currently investing 172 projects in Cambodia, valued at $3.61 billion USD, making it the second biggest investor in Cambodia. All the while, a border delimitation dispute remains over the Dak Dam Commune. It is an issue dating back to 1953, when Cambodia achieved independence from France. Vietnam stated it would take 60 percent of the land, and leave 40 percent to Cambodia. Cambodian opposition parties strongly contest the deal and previously tore out Vietnam demarcation border posts, on the grounds that they are on Cambodian land.

Chev, Prach. “Cambodia Asserts Sovereignty Over Disputed Border Area With Vietnam.” Radio Free Asia. November 4, 2015.

Dara, Mech. “Vietnam Agrees to Hasten Border Demarcation.” The Cambodia Daily. October 30, 2015.

Vietnam affirms sovereignty over central area that borders Cambodia.” Tuoi Tre News. November 3, 2015.

Vietnam, Cambodia advance border province cooperation.” Ho Chi Minh City. October 28, 2015.

China Provides Cambodia with Missiles

China and Cambodia recently signed an assistance deal, in which China is providing Cambodia with “shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.” Cambodia and China are long-standing allies. China has also offered to help with Cambodia’s military training and the construction of its military academies. Moreover, China is the biggest investor in Cambodia and purchases the bulk of its natural resource exports. The deal followed a contentious meeting in which other ASEAN countries challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Sokheng, Vong. Chinese defence boss brings military aid. The Phnom Penh Post. November 6, 2015.

Sokrith, Ban and Phun Chan Ousaphea. “Stand Strong, Defense Minister Tells Military.” Khmer Times. November 5, 2015.

Thul, Prak Chan. “China supplies Cambodia with anti-aircraft hardware in new military aid.” Reuters. November 6, 2015.

News In Review: Cambodia – October 28, 2015

photo credit: Reuters

Cambodia’s tense détente between the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the 35-year-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) grew more uneasy as two CNRP lawmakers were attacked outside the National Assembly this week. Hun Sen continues to consolidate power within his government, and Cambodia continues to accept refugees from Australia, while rejecting them from Vietnam.

CNRP Lawmakers attacked outside the Cambodian National Assembly

On October 26, two lawmakers, Kung Sophea and Nhay Chamraoen, members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), were brutally assaulted outside of the National Assembly by supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). It happened while thousands of people gathered outside the building, demanding that Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), step down. Witnesses claim that many of the protesters were police forces in civilian clothing. Tension between the two parties rose earlier this year as the CNRP accused accusing neighboring Vietnam of encroaching on Cambodia’s side of the border. Prime Minister Hun Sen maintains favorable relations with Vietnam.

Cambodia: New Violence Against Opposition.” Human Rights Watch. October 27, 2015.

Demonstrators beat up 2 Cambodian opposition lawmakers.” Associated Press. October 26, 2015.

Takihiro, Chea. CNRP Lawmakers Beaten Outside of National Assembly. Khmer Times. October 26, 2015.

Vietnamese Montagnard Refugees Live in Limbo in Cambodia

Thirteen ethnic Montagnard Christian refugees, from the central highlands of Vietnam, have been ordered by the Cambodian Government to voluntarily return to Vietnam by February 6, 2016 (a recently extended date), or be resettled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to a third country by January 10, 2016. The Montagnards are a Christian minority claiming to be escaping religious and political persecution in Vietnam. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warns that forced return of the refugees and unregistered asylum seekers “would constitute refoulement,” as Cambodia is party to the Geneva Refugee Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Cuddy, Alice. “UN urges against repatriating Montagnards.” The Phnom Penh Post. October 26, 2015.

Kitya, Tha. “Cambodia Extends Deportation Deadline For Asylum-seeking Montagnards.” Radio Free Asia. October 21, 2015.

Wright, George and Aun Pheap. Deadlines for Montagnards Pushed Back, Ministry Says. The Cambodia Daily. October 21, 2015

Australia sends Refugees to Cambodia

Australia holds 1,565 asylum-seekers – 1,359 men, 114 women and 92 children at detention and offshore asylum processing centers on Nauru and Manus Island, island nations northeast of Australia. The conditions in the centers have been deemed deplorable. Australia made a deal with Cambodia, promising $55 million dollars (approximately $40 million USD), in exchange for Cambodia taking refugees. Thus far, only four refugees have agreed to resettle to Cambodia. Australia has been accused “dumping” refugees on other Asia-Pacific Islands, while policy analysts observe that while Australia historically contributes aid money with the expectation that Cambodia will improve its human rights record, no such accountability can be made with this money going forth.

Anderson, Stephanie and Dan Conifer. “Refugee transferred to Cambodia returns to Myanmar; Shorten slams ‘pathetic’ $55m deal.” ABC Australia. October 15, 2015.

Jackson, Will. “Refugee deal has hidden bonuses: policy analyst.” The Phnom Penh Post. October 24, 2015.

Refugee Resettled In Cambodia Returns To Myanmar: Australia.” Khmer Times. October 16, 2015.

Prime Minister Hun Sen struggles to fend off criticism; appoints son as head of Intelligence at the Ministry of Defense

Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to consolidate family power in the government with the recent appointment of his son Hun Manith as head of intelligence at the Ministry of Defense. Three of Hun Sen’s sons hold a position in the government. Considered an architect of peace following the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen has held power for thirty years in Cambodia, which is technically a democratic country. He held a bloody coup to retain his rule in 1997, and many believe that his recent move signals fear of insecurity regarding the 2018 election against the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). His recent trip to France was met with large protests. And, he has exclaimed that a win for the CNRP will mean a return to the Khmer Rouge. Many of Hun Sen’s close allies have gotten used to a life of “luxury” since the takeover from the Khmer Rouge, and have expressed that they do not want to lose access to that lifestyle.

Hun Sen’s Second Son Promoted to Intelligence Chief.” Voice of America, Khmer. October 23, 2015.

Moniroth, Morm. “Cambodia’s Hun Sen Names Son Head of Military’s Intelligence Department.” Radio Free Asia. October 22, 2015.

Willemyns, Alex. “Hun Sen, Pondering Defeat, Has War on Mind.” The Cambodia Daily. October 26, 2015.

Direction of Myanmar’s Reform Hinging upon Upcoming Election

October 22, 2015

By Kendell Tylee

1,171 constituencies. 6,100 candidates. 90 political parties.

On November 8, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) will host an unprecedented “free and fair” multiparty election. This will be the first general election in Myanmar since 2011, when a nominally civilian, military-backed government was elected, ending 50 years of authoritarian rule. In the past four years, international sanctions have rolled back and Myanmar has opened up to limited outside investment and press freedoms. However, the reforms have been inconsistent and the government still faces international condemnation over its treatment of minority ethnic groups, notably the Rohingya. And, in defense of a so-called “disciplined democracy,” the military-drafted constitution states that 25 percent of the Hluttaw (parliament) must be comprised of appointed, unelected members of the military, who have the power to veto changes to the constitution.

This past August, IPJ Director Dee Aker and Program Officer for Strategic Peacebuilding, Kara Wong, visited Myanmar as part of a trip highlighting the importance of voter education in this upcoming election. Wong came to the IPJ from Myanmar and has over seven years experience working with local civil society. Responding to an invitation from Wong’s former colleagues, they collaborated with a consortium of international and local organizations. The consortium includes four local organizations Nyaungshaung, Myanmar Egress, Hornbill, and Scholar; three international NGOs (and one foundation) International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Democracy Reporting International (DRI), Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD),;and Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Together, they are delivering a comprehensive strategy focusing on capacity assistance to the Union Election Commission (UEC), civil society, media and other electoral stakeholders.

IPJ partner organization FNF is specifically focused on preparing trainers with the knowledge and skills to support voter education within their own communities, with the goal of conducting 160 trainings and reaching 8000 voters. Informational pamphlets, videos, and comic books are ready to be distributed and translated from English and Burmese into local languages and dialects.

During the IPJ visit, Wong conducted a two-day training with local groups, emphasizing the importance of minority rights as they relate to elections. In the midst of the heavily-spouted promise of “free and fair” elections, her presentation reframed minority rights as privilege and encouraged discussion around creative solutions and responses to the presence of privilege in an electoral cycle. Importantly, she made the presentation interactive—breaking the participants into small groups to share ideas around how to help citizens connect the act of voting to their everyday concerns and struggles. At the request of FNF and in response to widespread fear that unmet electoral expectations may lead to post-election violence, Wong had participants interview potential voters and develop strategies for managing voter expectations. It is important to emphasize that reform is an ongoing process that will take place well beyond November 8.

It is logistically difficult to run an election in the largest country in Southeast Asia, particularly in what is considered to be its first truly democratic election in decades. As Wong notes, “in Myanmar you are facing roadblocks to integration of new information and behavioral changes. Older generations who have lived through the dictatorship have this longstanding fear [of the government] and remember getting arrested for getting involved in politics at all.” In addition to personal and familial security concerns, apathy persists for those who feel that previous elections did not deliver the change they expected.

War and weather have also hindered current voter education and campaign efforts. Even in ideal conditions, not all of the country is easily accessible. For example, some areas in northwestern Myanmar, bordering India, can only be accessed by elephant, and political groups trying to campaign lament the further lack of access due to weather and to communal fighting in various states. Heavier than normal rains this season have caused flooding, mudslides, power outages and transportation issues. INGOs poised to work with communities on voter education and democracy-building are now instead responding to a humanitarian crisis. Long-standing regional and communal conflict presents additional challenges. While after two years of negotiations, the existing government, negotiators and armed ethnic groups inked a ceasefire agreement on October 15 the agreement remains highly contentious. Of the 21 armed ethnic groups that consider themselves stakeholders in the negotiations, only 15 were selected to participate, and of those only eight signed the pact. Many groups in the north have refused to sign, including the Kachin Independence Army, which is still sparring with government troops.

The Union Election Commission (UEC) is tasked with running the election. The UEC has been accused of aligning too closely with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Voters have expressed frustration that the voter registration is a cumbersome process, and that the UEC is non-responsive, shifting blame to the registrants themselves. The list of candidates on the ballot is ever-changing. Foreign election observers have been kept from accessing certain parts of the country, at times being required to pay $600 for a regional visa into the area. It is also a challenge to extend free and fair elections to those residing outside Myanmar as historically proxy votes have been manipulated in close elections. This week, voters nationwide are reviewing the voter rolls to ensure their information is correct. Common complaints are that deceased voters are listed, but eligible voters have been purged since the last election. Myanmar’s Rohingya population, a persecuted ethnic minority in Rakhine State, has been rejected from the rolls. Rohingya have been issued white temporary resident cards, suggesting an eventual path to citizenship. However, in March, the cards were deemed invalid for voting, despite many Rohingya living in Myanmar for generations. In September, Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin defended the government’s decision when he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He equated the Rohingya as “white card” holders to lawful permanent residents, or “green card” holders, not being able to vote in the U.S. As the statement drew international condemnation, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with the foreign minister to express his concern over the marginalization of the Rohingya and other minority groups who had been previously eligible. Rohingya who have been serving in the country’s Hluttaw are barred from re-election.

As Myanmar carries a promise of reform, there remain great challenges to the country’s political transition. The IPJ hopes to continue to support community partners who are helping voters feel informed, encouraged, and empowered when it comes to their vote, this anticipative election, and the future of their country. November 8 will be a historic day in Myanmar, but November 9 will establish its direction.

Zumzang Dau Dai and Zoncy, founding members of IPJ community partner and youth-led peacebuilding initiative DIVERZE Youth Arts Platform are featured performers in The Art of Peace: Creative Approaches to Conflict Resolution, November 11-14th. Zoncy is the campaign manager for prominent women’s rights activist and NLD candidate Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe.

The views expressed by Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Interns are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.

News in Review: Cambodia – October 13, 2015

Photo credit – Nora Lindstrom, International Alliance of Inhabitants

News in Review: Cambodia – October 13, 2015

Despite 35 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia still reels from its aftermath. Current events this week in Cambodia exhibit the regime’s continued effects on Cambodia’s workforce, currency, land distribution, mental health, and political process.

Cambodia Minimum Wage Increases

After weeks of negotiations between unions, the government, employers, and manufacturers, the Cambodian Government has confirmed that the monthly minimum wage for garment workers will increase from $128 to $140. The $12 increase is far less than what unions were seeking, and more than what manufacturers had lobbied. Though a wage of $135 was agreed upon, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a $5 government-supported subsidy, increasing it to $140 per person, in a suggested politically-motivated move. Two unions have not signed onto the deal, protesting that the new wage does not match inflation or provide a living wage. Meanwhile, the Garment Manufacturers’ Association’s Secretary-General Ken Loo warns that if buyers do not also start paying the factories more, they will start to close up, resulting in divestment in the country.

Carmichael, Robert. Cambodia Raises Monthly Minimum Wage to $140. Voice of America. October 8, 2015.

Kitya, Tha. Cambodia Raises Minimum Wage For Garment Workers But Unions Remain Unhappy. Radio Free Asia. October 8, 2015.

Vannak, Chea. Minimum Wage Gets Boost. Khmer Times. October 8, 2015.

Cambodia’s Currency: Riel vs. U.S. Dollar

Cambodia is heavily dependent on the U.S. dollar. It accounts for 90 percent of banking deposits and 83 percent of total transactions within the country. In 1992, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) intervened in Cambodia for peace operations, and brought the dollar with it. At the time, it was an optimistic alternative to Cambodia’s currency, which had been susceptible to inflation. And, recently Cambodia was one of the few Southeast Asian countries to not be severely affected when China devalued the yuan. However, with a desire to be autonomous, and global downturn in the strength of the U.S. dollar, the National Bank of Cambodia is trying to switch over to their local riel, which may be prove to be a complex transition.

Cambodia aims to reduce dollarization.” Xinhuanet. September 29, 2015.

Is It Time for Cambodia to Wean Itself Off the Greenback?Knowledge@Wharton. The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. October 6, 2015.

Peter, Zsombor. “World Bank Says Cambodia Will Weather China Slowdown.” October 6, 2015.

 Human Rights Defenders and Residents Arrested over Protesting Land Evictions

On October 7, a subpoena was delivered to the wife of Mr. Ny Chakrya, Head of the Human Rights and Legal Aid Section of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC). It stated that Mr. Ny Chakrya should appear before the Investigating Judge of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 21, where he will face charges of “public defamation”, “acts of slanderous denunciation”, and “publication of commentaries to put pressure on jurisdiction,” involving prison time. It is the latest in a series of arrests of human rights defenders, activists, and residents (including 76-year-old grandmother Nget Khun) protesting massive resident evictions attributed to World Bank-backed development projects. About 3,000 families have been evicted from their homes, and those remaining have endured massive flooding; Boeung Kak Lake, once a source of livelihood for many living by the lake, has been filled with sand to make way for shops and high-rise condominiums.

Phorn, Bopha, Michael Hudson, Barry Yeoman, and Ben Hallman. “World Bank Fails To Stop Attacks, Arrests of Villagers Protesting Big Projects.” The Huffington Post, The Nation, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. September 10, 2015.

Pomeon O’neill, Alexandra. “Continued judicial harassment against Mr. Ny Chakrya.” Worldwide Movement for Human Rights. October 12, 2015.

Witnessing Cambodia with Pen Chanborey.” The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN). October 12, 2015.

Post-Khmer Rouge: The Killings Stopped, but the Psychological Trauma Carries On

It has been forty years since the Khmer Rouge first instituted its ruthless regime, with 1.8 million people dying over the course of five years. While 70 percent of the current population was born after the regime, Cambodia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and only 50 psychiatrists provided for a national population of 15 million people. The reconciliation process is fraught as people struggle with living next-door to the alleged killers of their family members. The post-conflict trauma is evident in subsequent generations. Youth have reported depression, stress and insomnia, attributed to school studies and relationships, but particularly to financial struggles and family members who are sick.

Sophanna, Roath. RUPP Youth Mental Health Day. Khmer Times. October 7, 2015.

Zweynert, Astrid. Cambodia seeks way out of post “killing fields” mental health crisis. The Thomson Reuters Foundation. October 5, 2015.

A “Culture of Dialogue” and Accusation of Plotting a Coup

This week, the Foreign Minister of Cambodia accused the opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) of plans to “topple the government.” The 2013 national elections were close, heavily disputed, and accused of being rigged by the National Election Committee, in favor of the currently ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). After a long deadlock, the two parties agreed to work on peace-building and working together in a “Culture of Dialogue.” But, now it is theorized that the CPP has used the “Culture of Dialogue” to undermine and neutralize the CNRP, and its previously vivacious fiery vigorous leader, Sam Rainsy. The opposition party insists it is not planning a coup, but helping “build a strong democracy” and looking to the 2017 and 2018 elections. All the while, some political observers have expressed hesitation that if it backs down in critiquing the CPP, it could lose the next election; and, with 10 opposition activists currently in jail, this is something it cannot afford to do.

Harfenist, Ethan. “Cambodia’s Withering ‘Culture of Dialogue’.” The Diplomat. October 12, 2015.

Kitya, Tha. “Cambodian Opposition Slams Foreign Minister Over Claims of Coup Plot.” Radio Free Asia. 12 October 2015.

Reaksmey, Hul. “Hun Sen Each Declare Confidence in Upcoming Elections.” Voice of America Khmer. 12 October 2015.

News in Review – Cambodia

October 1, 2015

Cambodian garment workers have been striking and protesting since May, advocating for an increase in their current $128 USD monthly minimum wage.

The International Labor Organization, Human Rights Watch, and international human rights groups have raised concerns over workers being underpaid, overworked, sexually harassed, and discriminated against if pregnant. Moreover, thousands of garment workers have fainted on the job since 2011 due to malnourishment, overwork, and poor air circulation in the workplace. According to a Human Rights Watch report, workers have been ordered to fulfill daily quotas of 1500 clothing pieces, often working until 9 p.m. and receiving only 15 minutes to eat lunch.

Since 2013, workers have clashed with government forces while striking over wage disputes, forced overtime work, and prejudice against pregnant women. In 2014, five workers were fatally shot by Cambodian authorities during industry-wide protests. The firm DC Research recently conducted a survey examining garment workers’ expenses. Funded by the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, and international labor rights organizations IndustriALL Global Union and Solidarity Center, the survey was the first of its kind in six years. Union members interviewed 745 garment workers across Cambodia. Findings revealed that monthly expenditures, including remittances back to families in rural communities, averaged $207.50 USD per person. To keep up with expenses, many workers try to support themselves with second jobs and working overtime.

Cambodia’s 28-member Labor Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet this week to negotiate a newly proposed minimum wage for the country’s 700,000 garment workers. However, the committee’s seven union leaders cannot agree on a recommended wage. Given the recent survey findings, some leaders want to propose a $207 minimum wage, while others are more cautiously proposing an increase of only 10-15 percent. The Labor Ministry’s Spokesman Heng Sour claims that the unions will lose their right to negotiate if the seven members cannot agree on a single proposed rate.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), states that the only acceptable increase in wage would reflect the inflation rate, which is less than three percent. He insists that they cannot afford any further increase, given competition from other countries, notably Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia’s garment industry makes up approximately one-third of its national GDP. He also claims that workers take home more than revealed in the survey and dismisses the survey and foreign involvement as malicious and “disruptive.” Labor rights advocates, including William Conklin, Country Director for Solidarity Center, anticipate that an $80 wage increase will not be accepted, especially when union leaders do not have a unified voice nationally. Moreover, it is expected that clothing brands themselves could best influence the wage debate. Representatives from brands such as H&M, Arcadia, and C&A were in the country last week discussing the wage increases, though no information has been released from their meetings. Advocates are concerned that even if the wage increases, landlords and stores in proximity to the garment factories will respond by raising prices.

The minimum wage issue reflects a deeper struggle in the working class, stemming back to the Khmer Rouge regime. During the regime, schools were closed and intellectuals eradicated, in attempts to achieve a classless, agrarian society. Today, half of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 25 and the vast portion of the working class remains undereducated and holds no professional working skills. Many workers, primarily women, migrate from rural towns into Phnom Penh to work in garment factories. These workers endure long, arduous working conditions, often with the priority to send money back to their families.

Negotiations between government, employers, and unions are slated to continue through the week.

Photo credit: World Bank

The views expressed by Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Interns are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.


Carmichael, Robert. “HRW: Cambodia Failing to Protect Garment Workers.” Voice of America. 12 Mar. 2014.

Carmichael, Robert. “Pilot Project to Boost Nutrition for Cambodian Garment Workers.” Voice of America. 14 Oct. 2014.

Cox, Jonathan. “Garment Workers Want More Pay to Cover Costs.” Khmer Times. 21 Sept. 2015.

Dara, Mech and Zsombor Peter, “Government Tells Unions to Pick a Minimum Wage or Lose Their Say.” The Cambodia Daily. 23 Sept. 2015.

Mony, Serey and Samean Yun. “Garment Workers Demand Cambodian Government Resolve Employment Issue.” Radio Free Asia. 21 Sept. 21, 2015.

Reaksmey, Hul. “Manufacturers Say They Can’t Raise Wage to $207 Per Month.” Voice of America, Cambodia: Khmer. 22 Sept. 2015.

Work Faster or Get Out: Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry.” Human Rights Watch. 11 March 2015.