It’s becoming increasingly dangerous to be a peaceful protester in many parts of the world, and impoverished, corrupt Cambodia is no exception.
Since November 2011, gun violence against peaceful protesters has been on the rise in this troubled Southeast Asian nation. Local NGO Licadho has found that five land-dispute protests turned violent between November and January of 2012, while a city governor has been personally involved in a February garment factory dispute. Almost no arrests have been made in these incidents, and the police seem markedly disinterested in pursuing prosecution.
In what has become perhaps the most widely publicized case, a city governor personally fired into a crowd of 1000 garment factory protesters in Bavet, seriously injuring a 21-year-old woman and wounding two others. Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandith promptly disappeared after the shooting, although he allegedly showed up at the woman’s hospital to ask her not to press charges in exchange for money.
Even Cambodia’s deputy prime minister has jumped into the fray, after local police, at his request, offered the 21-year-old victim $500 if she did not press charges. The young woman, who is nursing a serious chest injury, refused the money, committing a noble act that may come to haunt her later under Cambodia’s current leadership. As for the governor, he has lost his job –although he will still retain a provincial government post of some kind.
The common theme in these examples of extreme government force?
A total lack of respect for Cambodia’s own people.
Cambodia has become a country so divided by rich and poor that I suspect the top-brass of this nation find it difficult to regard their poorer relatives as people, much less as equal players in an ostensibly democratic society.
Brutal violence against the poor seems to be becoming more normal. We may recall the beating of a Boueng Kak lake protester late last year into a bloody pulp. We may recall the constant clashes between police and protesters at the lake – clashes which forced the World Bank into action (not that it seems to give two farts about Borei Keila).
The people of Cambodia were under the impression that the boot of the powerful had finally, after so much suffering and battle, been removed from their necks. Instead, the poor are finding themselves ground face-first into the dirt once again—in the most literal sense of the word.
Interesting debate on Twitter today over whether Cambodia’s course of development will more closely mirror that of India or China.
The consensus? It’s going to be much more like China. China has achieved a true economic miracle in the past 20 or 30 years.
It has done so by means of forced evictions, the violent suppression of free speech, liberal prison terms, a widely enforced death penalty, and the deployment of a police state so profoundly creepy that it has every ostensibly free Western nation worried.
This is in stark contrast to India, where a robust, if shockingly corrupt democracy, means that people do have some legal apparatus to fight back when a developer wants to take their land. It takes a long time to get things built in India because of this. Some might argue it takes too long.
But India, at least for the time being, isn’t willing to pay the price in human suffering that China has for rapid economic development. For that reason, I’ll take India over China anytime, anywhere, for any reason.
Things are better in this country than they used to be – no one will dispute that. But as one mototaxi driver and Khmer Rouge survivor told us at Phnom Bat last week: “This (the evictions) reminds me of the Khmer Rouge time.”
If someone who survived one of the most murderous regimes in human history is drawing the analogy—the analogy a lot of us international commentators are awfully loathe to draw— perhaps we’d best listen.
Last year, we had Preah Vihear. This year, instead of Thai on Cambodian aggression, Cambodia appears to be turning on its own people.
Worst of all, it is turning on the poor and defenseless.