The Lowell Sun
By Frank Yetter
Special to The Sun
Two weeks ago, the Lowell City Council achieved the unthinkable by voting to cancel a meeting with Hun Manet, eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. In doing so, the council made a bold political statement in support of democracy for Cambodia that Washington would do well to emulate, and also gave voice to the cries of 15 million Cambodians who've been silenced by Hun Sen's 31 years of repressive policies toward assembly, speech and formation of political options.
Lowell's statement of support gives wings to their dreams.
The decision was the second blow to Manet's planned visit to the United States. Days earlier, the city of Long Beach, Calif., also voted to disallow him to participate in the community's Khmer New Year Parade. Both decisions were front-page news in Phnom Penh.
The council's vote may have been in response to the 500 Lowell citizens who signed a petition calling for the city to block Manet's visit, but it also answered the calls for justice from their family and friends 10,000 miles away. They've had to endure Hun Sen's family's iron grip on government, military, business and international relations, which has allowed it to pursue a unilateral agenda while amassing considerable -- though undocumented -- personal wealth.
A message of "not in our country" from U.S. soil is closely monitored by Cambodians who read and listen to the news every day.
They also pay close attention to the government's response. True to form, the Cambodian Peoples Party -- Hun Sen's political machine -- quickly clicked into action after the Lowell vote. Cambodian-American and government spokesman Phay Siphan, speaking to the Phnom Penh Post, accused the City Council of politicizing what was intended to be a unifying visit, predictably twisting the party's skewed vision of democracy in rejecting Lowell's vote.
"They do not have any argument; they are against their own principles of democracy and open society," he said.
He is right, of course, in that the concept of democracy and majority rule matters, which is why the council was correct in responding as it did to the wishes of the city's population to not give Hun Manet an audience.
Siphan also got personal, taking a shot at Councilor Rita Mercier who has visited Cambodia and spoke out in opposition to Hun Manet's visit. She empathized with Cambodia's history and said she opposes persecution.
"That white girl has no capacity to live with diverse people ... she's prejudiced," Siphan told the Post.
Basic principles of democracy are mostly absent in the halls of the Cambodian government. Rulers routinely trample on rights of expression and assembly. They set policy that sits well with foreign observers then violate their own rules as they wish, or for the benefit of "friends" representing the governments and business interests from other countries, notably China, Malaysia and South Korea. Most Cambodians can only watch and lament.
The government's arrogance and unpunished violation of international standards, laws and rules is appalling.
"Instead of devoting his time as prime minister to equitably improving the health, education and standard of living of the Cambodian people, Hun Sen has been linked to a wide range of serious human-rights violations: extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, summary trials, censorship, bans on assembly and association, and a national network of spies and informers intended to frighten and intimidate the public into submission," wrote Human Rights Watch in a January 2015 report on its website.
For Lowell to provide Hun Sen's son with a forum and tacit endorsement of his father's policies would have been politically inappropriate and morally corrupt.
Reign of oppression
Hun Sen and his agents have deftly played the international community like the expert politicians they are. They've allowed foreign aid and an estimated 3,000 non-governmental organizations in the country to do the work of rebuilding Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge era while ruling ruthlessly, oppressing opposition and pocketing the proceeds of an international community only too happy to give.
Well-intended as it may be, contributions with no strings attached send a worrisome message to Cambodia's marginalized and poor. Yet the U.S. continues its baffling half-decade foreign policy in the region by looking the other way on human-rights violations while feeding the machine that perpetuates the problem. President Barack Obama's decision to meet with Hun Sen along with other ASEAN leaders in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in February was an enormous mistake, giving credence to Cambodia's strongman and allowing him a moment on the world's most important democratic stage.
Meeting with Hun Manet would have sent yet another message to Cambodians around the world that all hope may indeed be lost.
Lowell's vote brought clarity to an often confusing message from the US.
Page one of the March 31 Cambodia Daily carried coverage of the Lowell citizen protest and resulting vote. "I do not care about the people who voted not to support His Excellency," breezed a CPP spokesman in the article. "He has already announced on his Facebook page either way that he will go to the USA during the Khmer New Year. Some people judge him and some don't. He will just go somewhere else."
On page 2 of the same day's edition, a small news story below the continuation of the Hun Manet story announced payment of a $35 million aid package from the U.S. as part of a $137 million commitment that came on the heels of Hun Sen's meeting with Obama in California.
The CPP said participation in the summit was proof that the U.S. is optimistic about his leadership.
U.S. endorsement of the Hun Sen regime -- either direct or tacit -- adds legitimacy and fuel to the policies and behavior of Southeast Asia's longest-sitting strongman. At the same time, such unrestricted support reminds Cambodians here and around the world that power begets authority, and that politics rarely has room for overriding voices of fairness, justice and reason.
It is yet another bitter pill that Cambodians must swallow.
That is why Lowell's vote was so important. It was a declaration of solidarity with Cambodian political interests who envision a far more open, fairer Cambodia offering opportunities to more than an elite few, and who understand that democracy functions best when government makes an earnest attempt to listen to the people -- and respond.