Sunday, November 16, 2014

Monarch Wears a Hollow Crown in a Kafkaesque Kingdom

The Cambodia Daily

If Jayavarman VII is known among Cambodians and the rest of the world as the greatest monarch that Cambodia ever produced for having ruled the country (then the Khmer Empire) to its zenith; if Chey Chettha II is known as the worst of the worst for ceding huge parts of Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia, to Vietnam to satisfy his Vietnamese wife, Princess Nguyen Thi Ngoc Van of the Nguyen Dynasty; and if the late King Norodom Sihanouk is known as the “playboy king” for being a womanizer during his adulthood, a “madman” for being a genius, a “red king” for joining hands with the Communists or the “royal crusader” for demanding his country’s independence from France…then what, exactly, does the present King Norodom Sihamoni want his fellow Cambodians and the world to know him for?

A dancer, a puppet, a prisoner of the palace? A reluctant, simple or Machiavellian king? Or something that is yet to be decided? It is his choice!

King Sihamoni has now reigned for just over a decade. Ten years ago, at his coronation, he addressed his beloved people, promising he would always be their “faithful and devoted servant.” Yet he admitted to a lack of experience and vowed not to interfere in politics. He pledged: “The Royal House will remain a transparent house. And for me there will never be an ivory tower.”

In truth, if one looks at Cambodia’s history, King Sihamoni is among the luckiest out of an estimated 86 monarchs, if only because he smoothly acceded to the throne without any upheaval or usurpation.

Ten years ago, having secured support from Cambodia’s strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen, King Sihamoni was unanimously chosen by the Privy Council to succeed his father. In some ways, he was in the right place at the right time.

His crown, at the very least, was clean of any bloodstains.

Yet a hidden agenda was played out behind the scenes. It was the late King Sihanouk who had engineered the right moment for his son’s succession. After all, it was through meticulous planning, not by accident, that King Sihanouk surprised the nation and the rest of the world with his abdication—a move dubbed by The New York Times as “one final hand in a lifelong game of chance.”

Apparently the only monarch in the world to have abdicated twice, King Sihanouk did so for several reasons, which he said were a “must do” to ensure the survival of the monarchy. The move not only allowed him to “secure influence in the choice of his successor” and “oversee the transition and help his heir find his footing,” according to the Times, but also assured his wife’s “well-being after he is gone.”

King Sihamoni is best known for being a former ballet dancer and instructor, choreographer, cinematographer and cultural diplomat. Unlike his father, who preferred living a life of extravagance to match his flamboyant personality, King Sihamoni has reigned over Cambodia in a markedly quiet manner.

Seen as lacking freedom and sometimes placed under intense pressures from politicians, some say King Sihamoni is discontented in his role as a sovereign monarch. The happiest moment of his life was almost certainly not during his reign as King but during his time in Prague, which he called “my second homeland.” It is widely believed that his father had to try several times to persuade him to take the throne.

By maintaining a low profile, King Sihamoni has distanced himself from the country’s politics. However, by maintaining minimum involvement in sensitive public issues, he is often seen as weak and inactive.

Nevertheless, he remains a symbol of national unity and reconciliation, as well as the guardian of the country’s history, traditions and religion.

He represents the epicenter of the Khmer souls as he goes about his day-to-day tasks, mainly keeping himself and occupied with social, humanitarian and religious affairs.

He has also made known his desire to take part in a revival of his country’s education, health care and cultural institutions.

His father once said: “My son is not interested in politics. He loves social affairs, culture and fine arts and literature…. If Norodom Sihamoni stays on the throne, there will be harmony for the national and international community.”

Unlike his father, who sometimes bitterly fought for his monarchical power and actively involved himself in politics as a so-called “royal check and balance” through his well-known blog, rarely has King Sihamoni publicly voiced any feelings on the heavy burden that comes with being a constitutional king.

Apparently adapting a strict interpretation of the Constitution, he dutifully abides by the concept of “reign but not rule.”

Some of his massive-sounding roles with seemingly no real powers include being the guarantor of the country’s national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; ensuring the independence of the judiciary; acting as an arbitrator to ensure the faithful execution of public powers; and serving as the supreme commander of the armed forces and the chairman of the Supreme Council of the National Defense.

Having presided over a decade of rapid changes in Cambodia’s political landscape, King Sihamoni has so far been exposed to at least two uneasy situations that placed him in the spotlight and tested his leadership, political acumen and intelligence.

The King’s first and toughest test was in late 2005 when he initially refused to sign off on the controversial supplementary border treaty between Cambodia and Vietnam.

The treaty was viewed by many Khmer ethno-nationalists, including his father, as illegal and against the genuine spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements. These critics said it would enshrine all past border treaties that had been entered into between Cambodia and Vietnam in 1979, 1982, 1983 and 1985, when Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam.

Perhaps at the advice of his father, King Sihamoni instead chose to leave the country for Beijing under the pretext of receiving medical treatment.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, at the time, seemingly threatened to abolish the monarchy, saying “we must review, should we keep the monarchy or form a republic?”

Since this incident, and particularly in the aftermath of his father’s death, King Sihamoni has adopted a truly nonconfrontational, more cooperative, subservient and cooler attitude toward Mr. Hun Sen’s government and the ruling CPP—an attitude that has resulted in him being called a “puppet king.”

This was clearly seen when he decided to convene the new National Assembly in September last year despite the fact that the opposition CNRP was still contesting the election results and warning of a parliamentary boycott.

Things almost certainly would have played out differently under his father.

As it was, King Sihamoni took heavy criticism for taking such a soft stance toward the CPP, which was accused of carrying out massive vote rigging, and for his failure to meaningfully intervene in solving the post-election crisis and avert violent conflicts.

Many wonder whether he is a king of division or a king of personal interest when he chooses to take the side of those in power and seems to turn a deaf ear to the opposition and the marginalized, or speak against any sensitive issues endangering the nation.

How much can King Sihamoni contribute to the sustainability of his country’s peace, harmony and happiness? To what extent is Cambodia’s monarchy necessary? Will King Sihamoni be the country’s last monarch?

Ten years into an uneasy reign in a country dubbed by his father a “Kafkaesque Kingdom,” King Sihamoni has no doubt experienced both psychological and physical unease.

At a very challenging time when most among Cambodia’s young generation are no longer so-called “royalists at heart,” and when the King’s reverence among ordinary Cambodians is being questioned, perhaps only Shakespeare could appreciate the depth of King Sihamoni’s sorrow when the playwright wrote some 400 years ago: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Sovannarith Keo is an independent researcher focusing on Cambodian and Southeast Asian foreign policy and security issues.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Asia’s Democratic Dark Spots

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress; and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. His most recent book is Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.

Project Syndicate - SEP 12, 2014

NEW DELHI – Democracy in Asia lately has proved to be hardier than many might have expected, with free and fair elections enabling the large and divided societies of India and Indonesia to manage important political transitions. But some Asian democracies – notably, Thailand and Pakistan – seem to be losing their way.

Indians have plenty of experience with changing their government through the ballot box, and this year’s election – the country’s 16th since independence in 1947 – was no different. In the world’s largest exercise of democratic franchise, Indian voters rejected the United Progressive Alliance, which had served two terms, in favor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi.

The second-largest such exercise followed in Indonesia. In the country’s third presidential election, voters – familiar with both strong-arm military rule and weak-willed civilian governance – chose the populist mayor Joko Widodo over the former general Prabowo Subianto.

Even war-ravaged Afghanistan held presidential elections to guide its first democratic transfer of power. Though the apparent loser Abdullah Abdullah is vehemently challenging the results, which favor Ashraf Ghani, the dispute has not turned violent; indeed, both parties are participating in US-mediated talks about the possibility of establishing a national-unity government. It is reassuring that, in a land ravaged by civil war and terrorism, neither of the contestants is reaching for his gun.

These countries finally seem to recognize, to varying degrees, that the way that elections are conducted matters as much as the outcome. An election expresses the hopes, promises, commitments, and compromises that underpin the sacred compact between the government and the governed. Accepting the results is a vital part of democracy. You fight to win, but you accept your loss with grace.

Unfortunately, this trend is not consistent across Asia. Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej effectively signed Thai-democracy’s death certificate by approving a new interim constitution – by some counts the country’s 18th since 1932 – that grants absolute power to the National Council for Peace and Order, the military junta led by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Prayuth can now “prevent, suspend, or suppress any actions that will destroy the peace and order, the national security and monarchy, the country’s economy or the country’s governance.”

Even if elections are held next year, as the ruling junta has promised, it is unlikely that they will be free or fair. Thailand – which has experienced more than a dozen military coups in the last 82 years – now has a constitution that is effectively a charter for indefinite military rule.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has been paralyzed by a protracted standoff between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s elected government and its critics. The charismatic former cricket star Imran Khan, whose Movement for Justice party came in third in May’s general election, and the Canada-based religious leader Tahirul Qadri are leading mass demonstrations that have brought Islamabad to a standstill – a situation that Khan and Qadri have pledged to sustain until Sharif resigns.

A glimmer of hope lies in the response of the main opposition Pakistan People’s Party, whose government Sharif supplanted. Instead of joining the protests, the PPP has backed Sharif’s refusal to allow extra-constitutional pressure to force him to resign.

But in Pakistan, as in Thailand, the army’s shadow looms large. Indeed, Pakistan’s army has ruled the country directly for half of its existence, and indirectly the rest of the time. So far, however, the army has yet to intervene directly in the current unrest, suggesting that significant elements of the top military brass have condoned the agitation.

In fact, there is a fundamental difference between the military’s current relationship with democracy in the two countries – one that bodes well for Pakistan. In Thailand, the elites, including the military, opposed consecutive democratically elected governments, because voters had inconveniently chosen populist politicians – notably, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck – to lead them. After several unsuccessful attempts to engineer different political outcomes by manipulating the democratic process, these powerful groups decided that it would be easier to eliminate the pretense of democratic elections altogether.

In Pakistan, by contrast, the problem began only when elected civilian governments pushed back against the supreme power of the armed forces. Given its pervasive control over Pakistan’s key political, economic, and intelligence institutions, the military has plenty of tools at its disposal to constrain – overtly or otherwise – elected governments’ ability to act against its interests.

It is probably no coincidence that, when an increasingly restive Sharif appeared to be testing the limits of the military’s authority, protests erupted. If he shows the military that he understands who is boss, and that he will adhere strictly to whatever red lines are drawn for him, the protesters will not be allowed to overthrow him; the army will quickly drive them from the streets.

It is thus too early to mourn the death of Pakistan’s democracy, which will likely continue as a kind of “guided democracy” for some time to come. But, in order to preserve and strengthen it, all of Pakistan’s political parties will have to learn to conduct free, fair, rules-based elections – and abide by their outcome.

That is precisely what Pakistan now needs from Khan, whose party has only 35 seats in the National Assembly, fewer than the PPP’s 45 and far fewer than the 166 held by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. Surely a cricketer would understand that, with those scores, he cannot be declared Man of the Match. Unfortunately, Khan appears to expect the khaki-clad umpires to swing the game for him.

Democracy in Asia has made impressive gains in recent years. A generation ago, half of Asia’s governments had seized power by force; today, a return to military rule seems inconceivable in South Korea and the Philippines, and unlikely in Bangladesh. Even Myanmar, for all of its problems, has broken definitively with praetorianism. But it will take a lot more progress in Thailand and Pakistan before the continent will truly have turned the democratic corner.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Thai PM to first focus on Asean leaders

Nantida Puangthong
The Nation - September 5, 2014

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha would give priority to Asean countries when he embarks on overseas trips to introduce himself, Foreign Ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow said yesterday.

The Foreign Ministry is consulting the prime minister on the schedule for his trip, he said.

There are plenty of international meetings - the Asia-Europe Meeting in Italy in the middle of October as well as the United Nations General Assembly late this month and Asean Summit later this year, he said.

China can try walking in Asean states' shoes

Goh Sui Noi
The Straits Times - September 6, 2014

If China wants to improve ties with its Asean neighbours, it needs to address the trust deficit that exists between the two sides.

That's one constant theme that cropped up during a two-day forum earlier this week between past and present diplomats and think-tankers of Singapore and China.

Asean-China ties figured prominently on the meeting's agenda because Singapore will be country coordinator of relations between the two sides, from next year for three years.

Why Beijing fears free elections in Hong Kong

Ching Cheong
The Straits Times - September 6, 2014

China has adopted an exceptionally restrictive framework for the election of Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017 by decreeing that candidates for the top job must be pre-selected by Beijing, a move that effectively shuts out the democrats.

Beijing insists that the decision, which has disappointed many Hong Kongers, is aimed at safeguarding national security.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Great expectations, but can Thai junta deliver?

The Straits Times - 30 Aug 2014

IT TOOK mere hours, rather than days, to wrap up the first reading of Thailand’s 2015 Budget Bill on Aug 18. Junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha presented the draft. Seventeen members spoke, in a National Legislative Assembly of then 197 representatives, appointed and dominated by the military. The House then passed the Bill, 183 to nil.

PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Since staging the coup on May 22, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, now Thailand’s prime minister, has frequently expressed a distaste for unnecessary debate. While stifling dissent, he has made no apologies for packing the kingdom’s appointed assembly with men in green.

Beijing Gets Ugly in Hong Kong

The Wall Street Journal Asia - August 29, 2014

Agents raid a prominent supporter of local democracy.

The people of Hong Kong want China to honor the democratic promises it made when the city became a special administrative region in 1997, and this fight for freedom deserves more world attention—especially as Beijing’s counterattack is getting ugly.

Agents from Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) searched the homes of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, his employee Mark Simon and legislator Lee Cheuk-yan on Thursday. The search warrants covered records of Mr. Lai’s donations to Mr. Lee and other pro-democracy politicians. The raid is especially ominous because it suggests that Beijing is compromising the independence of Hong Kong law enforcement.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Japanese Ambassador to Cambodia

Japanese Ambassador to Cambodia Yuji Kumamaru talks to the Post. Pha Lina

The Phnom Penh Post - Sat, 30 August 2014
May Kunmakara

Cambodia and Japan share a long history, with diplomatic and economic ties dating back 60 years. In December, the countries’ respective prime ministers signed an agreement that upgraded the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership”. Japanese Ambassador to Cambodia Yuji Kumamaru sat down with the Post’s May Kunmakara for an exclusive interview to discuss the special relationship that has developed between the two countries.