In the photo above, Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters take part in a commune election rally on June 2nd, 2017 in Chork village, Tboung Khmum province, Cambodia.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has made international headlines in recent weeks with a crackdown on media, civil society and political opponents. Those events and the arrest and imprisonment of opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha were reported widely via conventional international media as well as social media. While these happenings were taking place, the virtual destruction of grassroots opposition political movements was going on mostly under the radar in select rural areas of Cambodia.
A few months ago, CPP officials called 300 government civil servants to a meeting in a provincial capital. The civil servants, not all of whom support the CPP but none the less wore party shirts to the gathering, were told that if people in rural areas wouldn’t support the de facto CPP government, no infrastructure improvements such as new dirt roads or electricity connectivity would be forthcoming. Weeks later at another meeting, government workers were admonished to say only positive things about the government and to report those within the government who didn’t. In effect, they were told to spy on each other, a tactic used by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
About 6 weeks ago, those whose job is to serve the public were summoned by provincial department heads to take photographs. Their assignment was to take headshots of people over 18 while they wore CPP logoed shirts for “ID purposes”. In one province, they were tasked to take 3000 photos in a commune comprised of ten villages. Hundreds of these people are farmers who didn’t want to be bothered but the CCP commune chief rounded them up and forced them to be subjects of this odd documentary photography project.
Rolling the clock back about 40 years, another photography project in Phnom Penh took place at the infamous Tuol Sleng s21 prison. A Khmer Rouge photographer who, in the words of former Magnum photographer John Vink, “should be dropped into a hole of oblivion” took headshots of people who were thought to have committed a “crime”. One doesn’t need to possess a sophisticated degree of visual literacy to recognize unhappy faces. Any viewer looking at a few hundred mug shots taken by the civil servants recently would see hundreds of the villagers appeared upset. All subjects were forced to put on CPP logoed shirts much as Tuol Sleng prisoners were forced no hold numbers underneath their chins. A government worker/photographer reported “The people don’t like me but they don’t know I’m on their side”. He also stated one young man looked so angry in his photo that the commune chief told him to go get another photo taken. The man refused.
In another province, a man who returned from a migrant labor position in a foreign country stated “They know who I am”. He related that while working on foreign soil he made a few comments about Prime Minister Hun Sen on Facebook which were a bit critical. A few days later a Ministry of Interior employee who reports to ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak CALLED HIS MOTHER! The next day, a CPP commune chief visited the man’s 60ish mom to “educate” and intimidate her regarding her son’s Facebook posts.
Who is Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman? Let’s step back a moment. On October 26th, 2015, two CNRP members of parliament were viciously attacked outside the National Assembly building. Video shows that the assault was planned and well-coordinated. Nay Chamroen and Kong Sophea both suffered serious injuries and each man spent a month in a Bangkok hospital. They allegedly “insulted” their attackers by calling them “youn” slaves. Youn was a word that was used to describe Vietnamese people BEFORE there was a country called Vietnam and today is viewed by some as prejudicial to them. As a reaction to this “insult” the lawmakers were brutally set upon BUT General Khieu Sopheak said, “If it were me I would have used a GUN”.
If you are a poverty stricken woman in your 60’s and people from Khieu Sopheak’s office called YOU, would you be scared? If one of his henchman showed up at your door, would it strike fear in your heart? And what about her son working abroad? Was he afraid for his mother’s well-being? The answer to all the questions are yes if you are a poor Cambodian. After the son returned to Cambodia he was forced to wear a CPP shirt and pose for a picture. If he hadn’t, he could have clandestinely been shot or beaten himself, along with his mother.
The civil servant/photographer who doesn’t like the CPP or its tactics reported that the photo assignment was a calamity of errors, including the error messages displayed on camera LCD’s. The camera problems started after a provincial department head drove his Lexus SUV off a muddy road. The mud was almost knee deep and the vehicle sustained about $1000 worth of damage.
All of these activities were planned, according to a story published on August 29th, 2017, in the Phnom Penh Post.
Imagine for a moment what Cambodia would be like if government personnel spent their work hours doing their real jobs instead of systematically destroying opposition grassroots politics by instilling fear in rural villagers. Imagine that the CPP helped ALL Cambodians rather than only voters who support their political party. Imagine government employees promoted based on merit instead of nepotism.
When a known CNRP supporter shows up at a village chief’s office to obtain an ID in order to obtain a loan from a microfinance institution for example, the spy/photographer/propagandist/civil servant claimed they’re told “It’s not available. There’s a computer glitch”. The real glitch lies within the actions of the CPP. Their actions show how difficult it’s become to consolidate their power. The CPP needs to either re-format their policy card or eventually, Cambodians will choose a different bunch of photographers and re-format the cards themselves.
Cambodia is a Buddhist country and Buddhists believe EVERYTHING is temporary. Cambodians know in their hearts that FEAR of GOVERNMENT IS TEMPORARY. So is CPP rule and oppression, even at the grassroots.
*Neither the civil servant nor the man who had worked abroad was identified in this article since each fear being investigated by the CPP. The government worker is also afraid of losing his job and is concerned with being physically attacked.