Category Archives: Government

Tanks Pour Into Phnom Penh as Opposition Leader Returns


“Not to be used to plow the rice fields,” defense minister says


Tanks, armored personnel carriers and mounted rocket launchers Thursday were driven on massive trucks up Cambodia’s Highway 4 from the deep-water port of Sihanoukville towards Phnom Penh, adding to the tension that is gripping the capital.

Asked what the heavy weapons might be used for, Defense Minister Tea Banh was quoted as saying, apparently facetiously: “You don’t have to wonder, they will not be used to plow the rice fields. Instead, they will be used to protect the country, and crack down on anyone who tries to destroy the nation.”

There was speculation that the large shipment of military hardware could be a second part of an earlier contingent of similar weapons from a Black Sea port, possibly in Ukraine. China also recently sent the first batch of a dozen military helicopters, two of which were recently seen hovering over the capital.

The Phnom Penh government, which is closely allied with China, also recently accepted a consignment of 1,000 pistols and 50,000 rounds of ammunition, thought to be for the Phnom Penh constabulary, and which was construed as a ‘gift’ from the People’s Republic.

Such a ‘gift’ could not but revive memories of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in certain quarters in the lead-up to the 28th July elections here when thousands of young people took to the streets on motorcycles, waving flags bearing the rising sun logo of the Opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party headed by Sam Rainsy, a French trained international banker.

At a time when there was wrangling over whether or not there had been fraud in the counting of the recent Cambodian election vote on 28th July, Sam Rainy was in Boston attending his daughter’s wedding, returning today, eight days later.

The 64 year old opposition leader has in the past lamented that he had not spent nearly as much time with his immediate family as he should have, being involved so deeply in politics, and that he was making up for it now. He was criticized in some quarters for leaving for overseas so soon after the election, in which he was prevented from standing by the decision of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ministers.

Sam Rainsy returned here early Friday to pursue his belief that the Rescue party had actually won the 28th July election by defeating the ruling Cambodian Peoples’ Party but that there had been fraud in the vote-counting. The opposition Thursday walked out of a complaint session of the National Election Committee, claiming the committee had been improperly investigating the issues of massive fraud. The election committee is believed by some to be in Hun Sen’s thrall. The committee has refused to permit the cross-checking of results with the original counts.

Although the Cambodia People’s Party and the election committee agree the ruling party won the elections with 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55, the opposition says its own counting showed it had won with a majority of 63 seats. In any case, the Rescue party won what many saw was a tremendous psychological victory given the barriers placed in its way by the ruling CPP.

I asked Sam Rainsy as he left the Rescue party HQ today what he thought about the arrival of all that military hardware, but received no response. However, another ranking opposition leader, Ms Soc Hua, expressed concern, saying: “I thought we were talking to the CPP about ballots, not about tanks.”

On whether Hun Sen and the ruling party could use such military hardware to suppress street demonstrations, not just in cross-border international issues, people remember the military putsch in 1997 during which the CPP seized complete control of the country, killing up to 80 persons, most of them members of the royalist party, sometimes after severe torture. The royalist party did not win a single seat in the recent election.

Meantime, Phnom Penh’s garment factories are operating at greatly reduced capacity as workers return home to the provinces by the thousands in response to the government’s decision to increase security after the opposition warned they plan to hold mass demonstrations against the election results.

Parents in the provinces, remembering the earlier CPP bloodshed, are putting pressure on textile workers to return to their villages in the meantime, saying the capital is unsafe. This would be in response to the government’s decision to increase security after the opposition warned they planned to hold such demonstrations against the election results — but reports that they would take place next Tuesday haven’t been borne out on the ground.

“Obviously this has the potential to seriously impact the garment industry,” said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

On Thursday factories and the garment workers said in some cases almost 80 percent of workers had left their jobs to go back to the provinces, heeding their families’ warnings of social unrest if the opposition CNRP decides to hold threatened demonstrations.

Travelling by road from Bangkok in neighboring Thailand back to Phnom Penh, I noticed that the numbers of young women leaving the factories lining Highway 4 was far fewer than normal, and that the trucks employed to take them to their Phnom Penh lodgings were more than half empty.

Meanwhile, around the central market area of the city this morning there were rumors about the ‘Yuon,’ a derogative word for the Vietnamese, causing alarm.

The Vietnamese, who in history have occupied vast tracts of Cambodian land and off-shore islands have been regarded as ‘eaters of Cambodian soil,’ though they did save the Cambodian people in early 1979 when they invaded and drove most of the Khmer Rouge to the border with Thailand.

But rumors take on a life of their own. “The people fear the ‘Yuon’ most of all,” said one stallholder in the market. Sam Rainsy, in attacks on Vietnam for allegedly moving border marker posts, has used fear of the Vietnamese in their own campaign, against the advice of Western embassies.

At the same time, people here who know about Vietnam’s own current internal economic difficulties, which are impacting even their hitherto prosperous coffee industry, is causing the Hanoi government enough concern without it becoming more involved in Cambodia.”

Learning to Bounce Back


By ANDREW ZOLLI Published: November 2, 2012

FOR decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” — interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change — have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”: the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.

It’s an alluring and moral vision, and in a year that has brought us the single hottest month in recorded American history (July), a Midwestern drought that plunged more than half the country into a state of emergency, a heat wave across the eastern part of the country powerful enough to melt the tarmac below jetliners in Washington and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, it would seem a pressing one, too.

Yet today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

It’s a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances.

For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but — as was just demonstrated in the New York region — fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages.

Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves. For extreme weather events, that means developing the kinds of infrastructure more commonly associated with the Army: temporary bridges that can be “inflated” or positioned across rivers when tunnels flood, for example, or wireless “mesh” networks and electrical microgrids that can compensate for exploding transformers.

We’ll also need to use nature itself as a form of “soft” infrastructure. Along the Gulf Coast, civic leaders have begun to take seriously the restoration of the wetlands that serve as a vital buffer against hurricanes. A future New York may be ringed with them too, as it was centuries ago.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York hardest right where it was most recently redeveloped: Lower Manhattan, which should have been the least vulnerable part of the island. But it was rebuilt to be “sustainable,” not resilient, said Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer.

“After 9/11, Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEED-certified, green buildings in the world,” he said, referring to a rating program for eco-friendly design. “But that was answering only part of problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment” — for example, by having redundant power systems.

The resilience frame speaks not just to how buildings weather storms but to how people weather them, too. Here, psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists are uncovering a wide array of factors that make you more or less resilient than the person next to you: the reach of your social networks, the quality of your close relationships, your access to resources, your genes and health, your beliefs and habits of mind.

Based on these insights, these researchers have developed training regimens, rooted in contemplative practice, that are already helping first responders, emergency-room physicians and soldiers better manage periods of extreme stress and diminish the rates and severity of post-traumatic stress that can follow. Researchers at Emory University have shown that similar practices can bolster the psychological and physiological resilience of children in foster care. These tools will have to find their way into wider circulation, as we better prepare populations for the mental, and not just physical, dimensions of disruption.

There’s a third domain where resilience will be found, and that’s in big data and mobile services. Already, the United States Geological Survey is testing a system that ties its seismographs to Twitter; when the system detects an earthquake, it automatically begins scanning the social media service for posts from the affected area about fires and damages.

Similar systems have been used to scan blog postings and international news reports for the first signs of pandemics like SARS. And “hacktivists” are exploring ways to extend the power of the 311 system to help people not only better connect to government services, but also self-organize in a crisis.

In a reversal of our stereotypes about the flow of innovation, many of the most important resilience tools will come to us from developing countries, which have long had to contend with large disruptions and limited budgets. In Kenya, Kilimo Salama, an insurance program for small-hold farmers, uses wireless weather sensors to help farmers protect themselves financially against climate volatility. In India, Husk Power Systems converts agricultural waste into locally generated electricity for off-grid villages. And around the world, a service called Ushahidi empowers communities around the world to crowdsource information during a crisis using their mobile phones.

None of these is a permanent solution, and none roots out the underlying problems they address. But each helps a vulnerable community contend with the shocks that, especially at the margins of a society, can be devastating. In lieu of master plans, these approaches offer diverse tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation and creativity before, during and after a crisis.

As wise as this all may sound, a shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation, a word that is still taboo in many quarters. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place, and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.

In a perfect world, that’s surely true, just as it’s also true that the cheapest response to a catastrophe is to prevent it in the first place. But in this world, vulnerable people are already being affected by disruption. They need practical, if imperfect, adaptations now, if they are ever to get the just and moral future they deserve tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding: that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable. But the world doesn’t work that way: it exists in a constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions: they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.

“Resilience” takes this as a given and is commensurately humble. It doesn’t propose a single, fixed future. It assumes we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, that we’ll be surprised, that we’ll make mistakes along the way. It’s also open to learning from the extraordinary and widespread resilience of the natural world, including its human inhabitants, something that, counterintuitively, many proponents of sustainability have ignored.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t genuine bad guys and bad ideas at work, or that there aren’t things we should do to mitigate our risks. But we also have to acknowledge that the holy war against boogeymen hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to anytime soon. In its place, we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive — rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.

Andrew Zolli, the executive director of PopTech, is the author, with Ann Marie Healy, of “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.”

River be damned


June 14, 2013 Dave Tacon

The mighty Mekong, the lifeblood of many Asian nations, and holiday destination for an increasing number of Australians, is being heavily dammed. Can the river, and the people who depend on it, survive?

A boy stands on the banks of the Mekong River near the relocation site for a Lao village, which was moved to make way for the Xayaburi Dam. Photo: Dave Tacon

As the narrow longtail boat glides downstream from the dusty hamlet of Nong Kiew towards the golden temples of Luang Prabang, mirror images of jungle, vertical limestone cliffs and impossibly steep mountains shimmer in the waters of the Nam Ou River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong.

Endangered Asian elephants and Indochinese tigers still roam the upper reaches of the river within Phou Den Din National Protected Area, one of 20 national parks in Laos. This is the beauty that tourists, many Australians among them, come so far to see.

Yet this undeveloped region in northern Laos is about to be jolted into the industrial age. Three hours downriver from Nong Kiew, a scar of ochre-coloured dirt and rock stretches for kilometres: construction of the Nam Ou 2 Dam is steamrolling ahead.

A local worker is dwarfed by the nascent Nam Ou 2 Dam.A local worker is dwarfed by the nascent Nam Ou 2 Dam. Photo: Dave Tacon

”We started early this year and we’ll be finished in three years,” boasts a Chinese engineer dwarfed by a colossal concrete dam wall. Conversation is brought to an abrupt halt when his superior arrives. ”You have to leave,” he says. ”We don’t want pictures of this posted on Weibo [the Chinese version of Twitter].”

The 450 kilometre-long Nam Ou, one of the few Lao rivers traversable by boat for its entire length, will soon be severed seven times over by a 350-kilometre stretch of hydropower dams built and maintained by Chinese giant Sinohydro.

The Nam Ou 2 belongs to the first phase of the $1.95 billion project, which is expected to be operational by 2018. Details surrounding the project are scant. Even the final destination for the proposed 1146 megawatts of hydropower is unclear, although the Lao government claims the first three dams, Nam Ou 2, 5 and 6, will provide electricity for domestic consumption.

Details of the other dams have not been made public. Ultimately, the Phou Den Din National Protected Area will be partially inundated by the two northernmost dams, the Nam Ou 6 and 7, in violation of Sinohydro’s own environmental policy against development inside national parks. A pristine waterway and one of the last intact ecosystems in the region will change forever.

Despite concerns of environmentalists and objections by neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the tiny, landlocked nation of Laos is following China’s lead in its exploitation of the Mekong River and its tributaries.

China already has five hydropower dams operating and three more are planned for the upper reaches of the Mekong, the river that begins in the Tibetan Plateau and continues through China and five south-east Asian nations on its way to the South China Sea. Questions remain as to whether the river and those who depend on it for their livelihoods can survive.

”The government tells us that this will develop Laos,” says 65-year-old fisherman Thongsai Chanthalangsy, speaking at his village half an hour downstream from the Nam Ou 2 construction site. ”It’s not for the people,” he continues, ”the power will mostly be sold overseas. We can’t talk to the government. We have to follow what they say.”

Chanthalangsy has been advised that his home, which falls within the catchment of the planned Nam Ou 1 dam, will not be submerged, yet many other homes in his village will be.

”They will build more dams and the problems will get worse. When it’s finished there might not be enough water for our gardens and not enough fish to catch. There won’t be compensation. We’ll have to move.”

The Mekong and its tributaries are the front line of a massive development drive by Laos’ communist, one-party leadership to lift the nation from the ranks of Asia’s poorest countries.

Although hydroelectric power will bring much-needed revenue to the impoverished country, many fear that dams will cost dearly Laos, and all those for whom the Mekong is a lifeblood. In Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, more than 60 million people depend on the Mekong for food, income and transportation.

Ground zero for the Mekong is the gargantuan Xayaburi Dam, a project led by Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang. Dynamite and heavy machinery have already blasted, gouged and scraped away entire mountainsides above both banks of the swift-flowing waters about 30 kilometres from the provincial town of Xayabury.

Steep, winding, unmade roads carry a constant procession of trucks, earth movers, workers and occasionally armed soldiers to the expansive site. The $3.4 billion price tag of 810-metre-long and 32-metre-high Laos-Thai mega dam is being footed by a conglomerate of six Thai banks.

On its completion in 2019, around 95 per cent of the hydropower dam’s 1260 megawatts will be exported to Thailand. This is almost a third of the power generated by the 16 major dams of Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme, built over a period of 25 years to generate around 3700 megawatts.

Along with the immediate environmental impact of a project of such magnitude, hundreds of villagers have been resettled to make way for the dam.

At the new village, Natornatoryai, close to the construction site, teacher Khao Thevongsa, 28, is dissatisfied with the location, with its steep hills of barely arable land and the constant stream of traffic to the site.

She hopes that the dam may become a tourist attraction in its own right. ”We have to start from zero,” she says, ”but when the dam is finished maybe tourists will come here to see it and we can earn more money.” Almost every answer to a question begins with, ”We don’t have a choice.”

About 300 were first shifted to Natornatoryai, which is about 35 kilometres from the river. ”The old people didn’t want to move here,” says 63-year-old Khamkeo Daovong as her daughter-in-law and child play on her concrete floor. ”I was born near the river and so were my parents. Many people cried when they saw their new homes.”

Daovong complains that her house was unfinished when she moved in. The mismatched cinder-block and terracotta bricks were paid for out of her own pocket to keep out the dust and wind. Compensation in the form of rice and about $16.40 in cash per month dried up after one year instead of the promised three.

”I was given pigs and ducks to raise, but it’s very difficult to make money. I used to pan for gold, but now I just do nothing.”

According to non-government organisation International Rivers, about 25 families have already left the village to return to the river to fish, tend their river bank gardens and pan for gold.

For those who live in Laos, open opposition to the dam is unthinkable. The Lao regime has a history of ruthlessly silencing dissent.

On December 15 last year, Sombath Somphone, 62, a prominent campaigner for the environment and the rural poor, and a champion for sustainable development, was abducted from a police roadblock by two unidentified men in the nation’s capital, Vientiane.

Somphone, the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay prize, often referred to as Asia’s Nobel prize, has not been seen or heard from since. The Laos government denies any involvement. The official explanation for his disappearance was a ”business dispute”, although the activist has no business interests.

The incident brought rare international attention to Laos, as then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, led calls for a thorough and transparent investigation into Somphone’s whereabouts and wellbeing.

International calls to the Laos government for action and information on Somphone remain unheeded. In a recent statement by New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, Asia director Brad Adams accused the Lao government of direct involvement in the activist’s disappearance.

”Lao authorities have not answered the simplest questions, such as why, if Sombath was kidnapped, did the police at the scene do nothing to protect him,” Adams said. ”The absence of any real investigation points to the government’s responsibility.”

The reasons for the activist’s disappearance are unclear. But Somphone’s abduction has worsened an already fearful climate in Laos’ environmental grassroots organisations.

Land rights and enforced disappearances aside, dams on the Mekong have serous ramifications far beyond the borders of Laos. The Xayaburi Dam is the first of 11 dams planned for the Lower Mekong River, nine of which are in Laos. Environmentalists have already blamed China’s five Mekong dams, as well as drought, for some of the lowest water levels seen on the river in 50 years. China denies it is responsible.

On top of providing crucial sediment for arable land downstream, the Mekong sustains the world’s largest inland fishery, with 877 species. According to conservation group Great Rivers Partnership, this supplies an industry worth between $3.84 billion and $6.89 billion.

Fish are a foundation of regional food security. In Cambodia, 80 per cent of the nation’s animal protein is provided by freshwater fisheries. Alarmingly, a study of the proposed 11 Lower Mekong hydropower dams by the International Centre of Environmental Management concluded that the dams would reduce fish numbers by 26 per cent to 42 per cent.

Regional famine is a worst-case scenario. Claims by the Lao government and Xayaburi dam officials that fish ladders will allow safe passage for migratory Mekong fish species have been met with great scepticism.

Organised dissent to the Xayaburi Dam has mainly come from Thailand. A flotilla of Thai fishermen and villagers who worked the Mekong travelled to Vientiane to protest during the Asia-Europe Meeting.

In April, delegates from eight Thai provinces on the Mekong were joined by protesters from Cambodia as they occupied the entrance to the headquarters of the dam’s construction company, Cr Karnchang, one of the dam’s financiers.

Although limited at present, opposition to dams on the Mekong may be about to rise rapidly as more dams are built and their impact becomes apparent. Beyond street and river protests, there are rumblings at the highest levels of government that threaten to become a diplomatic stoush.

Should the worst fears of environmentalists materialise, countries downstream from the dams stand to bear the brunt of any damage to the Mekong’s ecosystem. Although Vietnam and Cambodia have plans for their own hydropower projects, they have already objected to the Xayaburi Dam through the Mekong River Commission, of which Thailand and Laos are also members.

Both countries have argued that work on the Xayaburi Dam breaks an agreement forged in December 2010 that no dams would be built until studies on negative trans-boundary environmental impacts were completed.

Vietnam has called for a 10-year moratorium on all Mekong dams. Such concerns have been brushed aside by Lao Deputy Minister for Energy and Mines, Viraphonh Viravonghas, who claimed the extensive construction is merely ”preparatory work”.

”Laos has simply ignored the requests repeatedly made by Cambodia and Vietnam to study the trans-boundary impacts of the dam,” says Ame Trandem, south-east Asia program director at International Rivers.

”The Mekong is becoming the testing grounds for new technologies, which may prove to have disastrous effects. The entire future of the river’s ecosystem is at stake. The Xayaburi Dam is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Dave Tacon is an Australian journalist based in Shanghai.

Think Again: Lessons From Cambodia’s Rebirth Through the Arts


The revival of Cambodia’s rich and unique cultural heritage has fueled the country’s impressive recovery from the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of 1975-79. This message rang unmistakably true as the Season of Cambodia (SOC) has dazzled New York audiences in museums, universities, galleries, and performing arts centers over the past month. Both the U.S. and the Cambodian governments stand to learn from this game-changing lesson for post-conflict development strategy, but neither government seems to have noticed.

The 125 Cambodian artists supported and hosted by over 30 New York institutions have revealed the near miraculous preservation of the venerated arts of shadow puppetry and Cambodian classical ballet, as well as the dynamic new visions in dance, visual arts, and film of the artists from Cambodia’s youthful majority (70 percent under age 30).

To understand the significance of creative expression and cultural heritage in rebuilding Cambodia, you have first to understand the utter devastation wreaked by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror.

Nearly a third of the population, between 1.7 and 2.5 million out of a total population of 8 million, was killed between 1975-79. The dictator Pol Pot, himself with a degree from the Sorbonne, targeted anyone with an education. Ninety per cent of artists and intellectuals were murdered.

The U.S. opened the door to Pol Pot and his genocidal regime. America supported General Lon Nol over the more popular King Sihanouk, but it was the massive US bombing campaign, with more ordinance than the total dropped by the Allies in World War II, that led Cambodians to see the Khmer Rouge as their salvation. (The analogy to the drone campaign radicalizing Pakistan has been made.)

Greeted as liberators when they entered Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge immediately launched their brutal campaign. They divided families and outlawed familial love, moved everyone into the countryside, eliminated all cultural traditions and creative expression, and made the entire population work grueling 18-hour days on a subsistence diet.

Arn Chorn-Pond — musician, Cambodian genocide survivor, former child soldier, and founder ofCambodian Living Arts, the organization behind the Season of Cambodia — recognized the essential role of reviving culture in rebuilding the country. In returning masters of music, dance, and puppetry to their rightful place in society, Chorn-Pond and the other co-founders of Cambodian Living Arts helped restore identity, pride, and resilience to the Cambodian people.

The Khmer Rouge targeted artists, Chorn-Pond explains, because “they expressed who they were as human beings.” While brutal regimes like the Khmer Rouge or the Taliban recognize the threat that cultural identity and expression pose to their totalitarian control — think of the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas or of the libraries in Timbuktu — the United States rarely prioritizes culture in post-conflict situations. (Afghanistan, where the U.S. successfully has supported culture and media, is an exception). No USAID funds for Cambodia have gone to culture.

The Season of Cambodia shows that recovery from trauma and conflict requires more than food and security. The soul of a country must also be nourished. The shell-shocked Cambodian survivors had to move beyond the genocide, and develop the strength to rebuild their country.

The story behind Lida Chan’s documentary Red Wedding, screened in the SOC’s Film Festival illustrates how the process of filmmaking as well as the end product can heal past pain, empower Cambodians to chart their future, and bridge the generation gap between survivors of the Khmer Rouge and today’s youth.

Chan’s film chronicles 48-year-old Sochan Pen’s determined search for the man who forced her, at age 16, to “marry” him. Pen escaped, but not until after her Khmer Rouge “husband” had raped and beaten her.

The process of sharing her story with the young filmmaker empowered Sochan Pen to testify against her “husband” at the Cambodia Tribunal, and to travel the country, telling her story, empowering other forced “brides” to speak up with her example.

Trained by Cambodia’s most renowned filmmaker Rithy Panh in his Bophana Center, Lida Chan and her experience affirm Panh’s belief that “Cambodians are learning to tell their own story, something that never has happened before.”

For his critical work preserving Cambodia’s cinematic past, and teaching future generations, Rithy Panh receives little support from the Cambodian or U.S. government.

To date, the Cambodian government has not made support for the arts a priority. Imagine what a fund built from a small tax added to Angkor Wat ticket prices could do to unleash the creative and economic potential of Cambodia’s youthful population.

The breakaway success of Artisans Angkor shows that investments in culture also can reap financial rewards. Led by Phloeun Prim, the charismatic architect of the Season of Cambodia, Artisans Angkor in a decade evolved from a modest NGO to a business with tens of millions of dollars in revenue, and over one thousand employees.

The Season of Cambodia offers the vision of a creative, dynamic, country, with a distinctive past and a promising future, a country that, to quote Festival architect Phloeun Prim, “has made arts and culture its international signature, not just the killing fields”. That dramatic transformation should persuade both the American and Cambodian governments of the importance of supporting the cultural sector in rebuilding this and other post-conflict societies.

First published May 9, 2013 on USC’s CPD Blog

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What the U.S. Bombing of Cambodia Tells Us About Obama’s Drone Campaign


 FEB 14 2013, 7:30 AM ET

A look back at another instance in which the U.S. undertook a secretive and widespread bombing campaign.


A Cambodian man prays at a Buddhist ceremony as around 300 skulls that formed a giant map of Cambodia are dismantled at a genocide museum in Phnom Penh on March 10, 2002(Chor Sokunthea/Reuters)

Halfway through the Justice Department white paper [PDF] defending the lawfulness of government-ordered assassinations of U.S. citizens, there is a curious reference to a dark chapter of American history.

The memo, making the legal case for covertly expanding military operations across international borders, directs readers to an address by State Department legal adviser John R. Stevenson, “United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law,” delivered to the New York Bar Association in 1970.

The comparison is fitting in ways the Justice Department surely did not intend.

Like the current conflict, the military action in neutral Cambodia was so secretive that information about the first four years of bombing, from 1965 to 1969, was not made public until 2000. And like the current conflict, the operation in Cambodia stood on questionable legal ground. The revelation of its existence, beginning in 1969, was entangled with enough illegal activity in this country — wiretaps, perjury, falsification of records and a general determination to deceive — to throw significant doubt on its use as a precedent in court.

The most important parallel, though, isn’t legal or moral: it’s strategic. As critics wonder what kind of backlash might ensue from drone attacks that kill civilians and terrorize communities, Cambodia provides a telling historical precedent.

Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives — more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II — on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City’s. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.

The bombing had two primary effects on survivors. First, hundreds of thousands of villagers fled towards the safety of the capital Phnom Penh, de-stabilizing Cambodia’s urban-rural balance. By the end of the war, the country’s delicate food supply system was upended, and the capital was so overcrowded that residents were eating bark off of trees.

Secondly, the attacks radicalized a population that had previously been neutral in the country’s politics. The severity of the advanced air campaign — “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them,” then-U.S. President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger — fomented immense anger in the Cambodian countryside. Charles Meyer, an aide to the deposed Prince Sihanouk, said that it was “difficult to imagine the intensity of [the peasants’] hatred towards those who are destroying their villages and property.” Journalist Richard Dudman was more precise. “The bombing and the shooting,” he wrote after a period in captivity in the Cambodian jungle, “was radicalizing the people of rural Cambodia and was turning the country into a massive, dedicated, and effective rural base.”

Nevertheless, many historians continued to deny the causal link between the violence and the political upheavals in the country. Cambodia’s embrace of radicalism instead fit neatly into the Cold War-era “domino theory” paradigm, de-emphasizing the role of local conditions in driving the country’s history.

William Shawcross, in 1979’s Sideshow: Kissenger. Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia , was the first to advance the theory that the meteoric rise of the Khmer Rouge was not in spite of the U.S. bombing campaign but because of it. Taylor Owen, the research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and Ben Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, have concluded that the full war archives, released by President Clinton in 2000, confirm this version of history.

“The impact of this bombing… is clearer than ever,” they write. “Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, acoup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.”

In tactical terms, contemporary drone attacks are far more precise than the pell-mell Cambodia-era bombs. One comparison, though, remains apt: in both cases, the American government has been less than forthcoming about the effect of these weapons on local populations. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that between 2,500 and 3,500 people have been killed by drone strikes, including — contrary to the recent statements of CIA nominee John Brennan — between 473 and 893 civilians, and 176 children. (The classification of civilians has been called into question as well. The Obama administration reportedly “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” unless posthumously proved innocent.)

Owen and Kiernan saw the parallel to current anti-terror operations before the Department of Justice did. In 2010, they published a paper in The Asia-Pacific Journal called ” Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent,” in which they argue that incidents like the predator drone strike on a Pakistani village in 2006 created direct blowback.

This point of view is echoed by Pakistani journalist Mohammed Hanif, who recently argued that the strikes are not only radicalizing the population but are “creating a whole new generation of people who will grow up thinking that this is what happened to us and now, now we want revenge.” In Pakistan and Yemen, Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times, “drones have become the recruiting tool of choice for militants.”

In this respect, the DOJ could not have found a more fitting precedent than the carpet-bombing of Cambodia. The purpose of the sustained bombardment from 1972 to 1973 was to prevent the Khmer Rouge from consolidating power. The result was the opposite.

The thousands of people killed so far by drone strikes represent a fraction of the several hundred thousand who died beneath the B-52s between 1969 and 1975. But the level of fear and anger — and the opportunity for insurgent groups to harness those emotions — cannot be so easily calculated.

In the words of retired General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, one can’t help but hear an echo of Charles Meyer, Richard Dudman, and other observers of the Cambodia campaign. “What scares me about the drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,” McChrystal said last month. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes…is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent


Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen

The U.S. war in Afghanistan is “going badly,” according to the New York Times. Nine years after American forces invaded to oust the repressive Taliban regime and its Al-Qaeda ally, “the deteriorating situation demands a serious assessment now of the military and civilian strategies.”1 Aerial bombardment, a centrepiece of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, has had a devastating impact on civilians there. Along with Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents and suicide bombers, who have recently escalated their slaughter of the Afghan population, U.S. and NATO aircraft have for years inflicted a horrific toll on innocent villagers.

When U.S. bombs hit a civilian warehouse in Afghanistan in late 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded: “We’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is.” There was laughter in the press gallery.

But the bombing continued and spread to Iraq in 2003, with the United States determined to use “the force necessary to prevail, plus some,” and asserting that no promises would be made to avoid “collateral damage.”2 Afghan and Iraqi civilian casualties, in other words, were predictable if not inevitable. The show of strength aside, didn’t the U.S. underestimate the strategic cost of collateral damage? If “shock and awe” appeared to work at least in 2001 against the Taliban regular army, the continued use of aerial bombardment has also nourished civilian support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda anti-U.S. insurgency. In March 2010, the New York Times reported that “civilian deaths caused by American troops and American bombs have outraged the local population and made the case for the insurgency.”3 Beyond the moral meaning of inflicting predictable civilian casualties, and contravention of international laws of war, it is also clear that the political repercussions of air strikes outweigh their military benefits.



Cleanup following U.S. bombing of a village wedding in 2008 (EPI photo)


This is not news. The extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia, which the U.S. Air Force bombed from 1965 to 1973, was a troubling precedent. First, Cambodia became in 1969-73 one of the most heavily-bombarded countries in history (along with North Korea, South Vietnam, and Laos).4 Then, in 1975-79, it suffered genocide at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge communists, who had been military targets of the U.S. bombing but also became its political beneficiaries.

Despite key differences, an important similarity links the current conflict in Afghanistan to the 1970-75 Cambodian war: increasing U.S. reliance on airpower against a heterogeneous insurgency. Moreover, in the past few years, as fighting has continued in Afghanistan supported by U.S. air power, Taliban forces have benefited politically, recruiting among an anti-U.S. Afghan constituency that appears to have grown even as the insurgents suffer military casualties. In Cambodia, it was precisely the harshest, most extreme elements of the insurgency who survived the U.S. bombing, expanded in numbers, and then won the war. The Khmer Rouge grew from a small force of fewer than 10,000 in 1969 to over 200,000 troops and militia in 1973.5 During that period their recruitment propaganda successfully highlighted the casualties and damage caused by U.S. bombing.6 Within a broader Cambodian insurgency, the radical Khmer Rouge leaders eclipsed their royalist, reformist, and pro-Hanoi allies as well as defeating their enemy, the pro-U.S. Cambodian government of Lon Nol, in 1975.

The Nixon Doctrine had proposed that the United States could supply an allied Asian regime with the matériel to withstand internal or external challenge while the U.S. withdrew its own ground troops or remained at arm’s length. “Vietnamization” built up the air and ground fighting capability of South Vietnamese government forces while American units slowly disengaged. In Cambodia from 1970, Washington gave military aid to General Lon Nol’s new regime, tolerating its rampant corruption, while the U.S. Air Force (and the large South Vietnamese Air Force) conducted massive aerial bombardment of its Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge communist opponents and their heterogeneous united front, across rural Cambodia.

U.S. policy in Afghanistan has shown a similar reliance on air strikes in fighting the motley insurgency there. These strikes, while far more precisely targeted than the earlier bombing campaigns in Indochina, inflicted substantial civilian casualties in the first year of the Afghan war in 2001-02. The Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that in a 3-month period between October 7, 2001 and January 1, 2002, between 1,000 and 1,300 civilians were killed by aerial bombing,7 and The Los Angeles Times found that in a 5-month period from October 7, 2001 to February 28, 2002, between 1,067 and 1,201 civilian deaths were reported in the media.8 Deaths reported in newspapers should be treated with caution, but not all are reported, and the total was undoubtedly high. And the toll has continued long after the initial U.S. invasion.9 According to Human Rights Watch, airstrikes by the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and its NATO-led coalition, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), killed 116 Afghan civilians in 2006, and 321 civilians in 2007.10 And the number rose again in 2008: according to a UN study on the humanitarian costs of the conflict, airstrikes accounted for 530 of the 828 civilians killed that year by U.S. or Afghan government forces. The same study found that between January and June 2009, 200 of the 310 recorded civilian deaths were caused by airstrikes.11 Overall in 2009, the UN reported that 2,400 civilians were killed in Afghanistan, though the number killed by foreign and Afghan troops was down 25%.12

While their largescale killing of civilians presented a moral challenge to the U.S.-led coalition forces, there has also been increasing acknowledgment of strategic costs accompanying these casualties. In mid-2007, the London Guardian reported that “a senior UK military officer said he had asked the U.S. to withdraw its special forces from a volatile area that was crucial in the battle against the Taliban,” after the U.S. forces were “criticized for relying on air strikes for cover when they believed they were confronted by large groups of Taliban fighters.” The paper added: “British and Nato officials have consistently expressed concern about US tactics, notably air strikes, which kill civilians, sabotaging the battle for ‘hearts and minds’.” NATO’s Secretary-General added that NATO commanders “had changed the rules of engagement, ordering their troops to hold their fire in situations where civilians appeared to be at risk.”13 More recently Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall, the senior NATO soldier in Afghanistan, has argued that many of the insurgents being held at Bagram Air Base had joined the insurgency due to deaths of people they knew. He told the troops, “there are stories after stories about how these people are turned into insurgents. Every time there is an escalation of force we are finding that innocents are being killed.”14 The same report cited a village elder from Hodkail corroborating this argument: “The people are tired of all these cruel actions by the foreigners, and we can’t suffer it anymore. The people do not have any other choice, they will rise against the government and fight them and the foreigners. There are a lot of cases of killing of innocent people.”15

Yet the bombings have continued and the civilian death toll has mounted. In 2008, after U.S. aircraft killed more than 30 Afghan civilians in each of two bombardments of rural wedding parties, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, “ordered a tightening of procedures for launching airstrikes,” and proclaimed that “minimizing civilian casualties is crucial.”16 In December 2008, McKiernan issued another directive, ordering that “all responses must be proportionate.”17

Again new procedures failed to stop the slaughter from the air. Following an investigation into a 2009 airstrike in Farah Province which killed at least 26 civilians (the Afghan Government reported a much higher toll of 140 dead), McKiernan’s replacement, General Stanley McChrystal, issued new guidelines meant to minimize civilian casualties.18 In earlier testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, McChrystal had stressed the strategic importance of civilian protection. “A willingness to operate in ways minimizing causalities or damage … is critical,” he argued. “Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of success will not be enemy killed. It will be shielding the Afghan population from violence.”19 So far the cost of failure, for instance by inflicting more civilian casualties, has included a political windfall for Taliban insurgents, who by 2009 posed a much stronger threat than they had in 2005.20

Since the issuing of McChrystal’s 2009 directive, however, airstrikes have continued to kill civilians, the toll increasing with the escalation of the U.S. ground war in response to the greater Taliban threat. In February 2010 alone, 46 Afghan civilians were killed in just three strikes. An errant rocket attack on February 14 killed 12 civilians.21 Four days later a NATO airstrike mistakenly killed 7 Afghan police officers.22Another NATO strike on February 20, 2010, killed 27 civilians.23 In comparison to the previous year, the three-month period from March to June 2010 saw a 44% drop in civilian casualties caused by the coalition.24 Yet, nine years after the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, bombing remains part of U.S. strategy and the death toll in aerial strikes continues. In a March incident, a U.S. airstrike killed 13 civilians,25 and in June, 10 more civilians, including at least five women and children, were killed in a NATO airstrike.26

One reaction to the McChrystal directive has been an increased U.S. use of unmanned aerial drones to deliver air strikes.27 While proponents of targeted drone strikes argue that they offer greater precision, and therefore minimize civilian casualties, it is also possible that the greater ease with which they can be deployed could instead increase the number of raids and thus the civilian casualty rates. For example, a Human Rights Watch report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan argued that most civilian casualties do not occur in planned airstrikes on Taliban targets, but rather in the more fluid rapid-response strikes mostly carried out in support of “troops in contact”.28 A recent US military report on a drone strike that killed 23 civilians in February found that “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting by the drone operators  was responsible for the casualties.29 In response, General McChrystal repeated what he had said many times, “inadvertently killing or injuring civilians is heartbreaking and undermines their trust and confidence in our mission.”30 In late June 2010, in the second change of Afghanistan commander in eighteen months, President Obama fired McChrystal and replaced him with General David Petraeus.

The resort to drones, while potentially useful for well-planned long term surveillance-based strikes, could also enable the execution of more frequent troop support strikes. More generally, any shift to increased air power, even in conjunction with ground troops, will likely inflict greater civilian casualties. The resulting local outrage could benefit an insurgency seeking civilian support and recruitment. While air strikes today can be much more accurate than they were in Indochina in the 1970s, it would be perilous to ignore a disastrous precedent: the political blowback of the U.S. air war against Cambodian insurgents.


On December 9, 1970, President Richard Nixon telephoned his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, to discuss the ongoing bombing of Cambodia. U.S. B-52s, long deployed over Vietnam, had been targeting Cambodia for only a year. In a “sideshow” to the war in Vietnam, American aircraft had already dropped 36,000 payloads on Cambodia, a neutral kingdom until the U.S.-backed General Lon Nol seized power from Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a March 1970 coup.31 The 1969-70 “Menu” B-52 bombings of Cambodia’s border areas, which American commanders labelled Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Dinner, Desert and Snack, aimed to destroy the mobile headquarters of the South Vietnamese “Viet Cong” and the North Vietnamese Army (VC/NVA) in the Cambodian jungle. However, these and later bombardments  forced the Vietnamese communists further west and deeper into Cambodia, and ultimately radicalized Cambodian local people against Lon Nol’s regime.

After the U.S. ground invasion of Cambodia in May-June 1970, which also failed to root out the Vietnamese communists there, Nixon faced growing congressional opposition to his Indochina policy. The U.S. President now wanted a secret escalation of air attacks, further into Cambodia’s populous areas. This was despite a September 1970 US intelligence report, which had warned Washington that “many of the sixty-six ‘training camps’ on which [Lon Nol’s army] had requested air strikes by early September were in fact merely political indoctrination sessions held in village halls and pagodas.”32

Telling Kissinger on December 9, 1970 of his frustration that the U.S. Air Force was being “unimaginative,” Nixon demanded more bombing, deeper into Cambodia: “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in . . . I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them.  There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear ?”

This order ignored prior limits restricting U.S. attacks to within 30 miles of the Vietnamese border33 and prohibiting B-52 bombing within a kilometer of any village,34 and military assessments likening the air strikes to “taking a beehive the size of a basketball and poking it with a stick.”35 Kissinger responded hesitantly: “The problem is Mr President, the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war . . . in fact, they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.”

The U.S. insistence even today on using airpower against insurgencies raises this same dilemma: perhaps even more than the civilian casualties of ground operations, the “collateral damage” from U.S. aerial bombing still appears to enrage and radicalize enough of the survivors for insurgencies to find the recruits and supporters they require.

Five minutes after his telephone conversation with Nixon, Kissinger called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders. “He [Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that ?” The response from Haig, recorded as barely audible, sounded like laughing.

As in Vietnam, the U.S. now deployed massive airpower over Cambodia to fight an insurgency that enjoyed significant local support. One result was more growth in the insurgency. In recent years the impact of the U.S. bombing on Cambodia has become much better known. An apparently near-complete Pentagon spatial database, declassified in 2000 and detailing no fewer than 230,488 U.S. aircraft sorties over Cambodia from October 4, 1965 to August 15, 1973, reveals that much of that bombing was indiscriminate and that it had begun years earlier than ever officially disclosed to Congress or the American people.

A decade ago, the U.S. Government released to the Governments of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam extensive classified Air Force data on all American bombings of those countries.36 This data assists those countries in the search for unexploded U.S. ordnance, still a major threat in much of the region, and it can also be analysed in map and time series formats, revealing an astounding wealth of historical information on the air war there.

We now know, for instance, that from 1965 to 1969, before Nixon’s ‘secret’ Menu bombing even started, the U.S. Air Force had dropped bombs on, among other places in Cambodia, eighty-three sites at which the Pentagon database described the intended target as ‘Unknown’ or ‘Unidentified.’ The detailed record reveals that for these 83 cases, the U.S. Air Force stated in its confidential reporting that it was unaware of what it was bombing. It nevertheless dropped munitions on those sites which it could not identify, in a neutral country at peace.

This practice escalated after the ground war began in Cambodia in 1970. For that year alone, the number of U.S. air strikes on targets recorded as ‘Unknown’ or ‘Unidentified’ increased to as many as 573 bombing sites. American planes also bombed another 5,602 Cambodian sites where the Pentagon record neither identifies nor cites any target — fifteen percent of the 37,426 air strikes made on the country that year. Interestingly, after Nixon’s December 1970 order for wider bombing of Cambodia, the number of such attacks fell in 1971, but that year still saw as many as 182 bombing raids on ‘Unknown’ targets, and 1,390 attacks on unidentified ones (among the 25,052 Cambodian sites bombed that year).

The longterm trend favored more indiscriminate bombardment. In 1972, the U.S. Air Force bombed 17,293 Cambodian sites, including 766 whose targets it explicitly recorded as ‘Unknown,’ plus another 767 sites with no target identified in the military database. These figures dramatically increased the next year. In the period January-August 1973 alone, the U.S. Air Force bombed 33,945 sites in Cambodia, hitting as many as 2,632 ‘Unknown’ targets, and 465 other sites where the Pentagon record identified no target.

May 1973 saw the height of the Cambodia bombing. During that month, U.S. planes bombed 6,553 sites there. These sorties included hits on 641 ‘Unknown’ and 158 unidentified targets, at a rate of over 25 such strikes per day for that month.

Overall, during the U.S. bombardment of Cambodia from 1970 to 1973, American warplanes hit a total of 3,580 ‘Unknown’ targets and bombed another 8,238 sites with no target identified. Such sites accounted for 10.4% of the U.S. air strikes, which hit a total of 113,716 Cambodian sites in less than four years.

Also unknown is the human toll that these specific air strikes inflicted on ‘Unknown,’  ‘Unidentified’ or non-identified targets, and the toll from the additional 1,023 U.S. strikes on targets identified only as a ‘sampan.’ Civilian casualties from the former, at least, are properly considered U.S. war crimes (not genocide), though they remain unprosecuted.

However, it is possible to cross-check other information in the Pentagon bombing database with details that Cambodian survivors provided to Ben Kiernan in interviews he conducted in 1979-81.37 We can also begin to answer important further questions concerning the strategic efficacy and political consequences of aerial bombing: Can insurgencies be beaten with bombs? What are the human and also the strategic costs of “collateral damage”? For a strategy of replacing or reinforcing ground troops with air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cambodia at least shows how strategic bombing can go disastrously wrong.


The new data transforms our understanding of what happened to Cambodia, even today one of the most heavily bombed countries in history. The total tonnage of U.S. bombs dropped on Cambodia, at least in the range of 500,000 tons, possibly far more, either equalled or far exceeded the tonnages that the U.S. dropped in the entire Pacific Theater during World War Two (500,000 tons) and in the Korean War (454,000).38 In per capita terms, the bombing of Cambodia exceeded the Allied bombing of Germany and Japan, and the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam (but not that of South Vietnam or possibly, Laos).


The U.S. dropped 160,000 tons of bombs on Japan during World War Two. The Pentagon data records the bombardment of Cambodia to have been at least three times heavier (around 500,000 tons), perhaps much more. To put this massive figure in global perspective, during all of WWII, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs, including 1.6 million tons in the European Theater and 500,000 tons in the Pacific Theater (including the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000 tons respectively).39 In the Korean War, the total U.S. bombardment was 454,000 tons.40 Cambodia’s total thus equalled or exceeded the U.S. bomb tonnages dropped in the Pacific War and the Korean War.


Not only was the total payload dropped on Cambodia significant, and much of it indiscriminate, but also, the bombardment began much earlier than previously disclosed. The “secret” 1969-70 Menu campaign, when later uncovered, caused congressional uproar and provoked calls for Nixon’s impeachment, but we now know that U.S. bombing had actually started over four years earlier, in 1965, as Cambodian leaders had claimed at the time. These early tactical strikes may have supported secret U.S. Army and CIA ground incursions from across the Vietnamese border. During the mid-1960s, the Studies and Operations Group, U.S. Special Forces teams in tandem with the Khmer Serei (U.S.-trained ethnic Cambodian rebels from South Vietnam), were collecting intelligence inside Cambodia.41 Perhaps the U.S. tactical air strikes supported or followed up on these secret pre-1969 operations.

This revelation has several implications. First, U.S. bombing of neutral Cambodia significantly predated the Nixon administration. Early individual bombardments of Cambodia were known and protested by the Cambodian government. Prince Sihanouk’s Foreign Minister, for instance, claimed as early as January 1966 that “hundreds of our people have already died in these attacks.”42 The Pentagon database reveals escalating bombardments. From 1965 to 1968, the Johnson Administration conducted 2,565 sorties over Cambodia. Most of these strikes occurred under the Vietnam War policy of then Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara, which he subsequently publicly regretted.

Second, these early strikes were tactical, directed at military targets, not carpet bombings. The Johnson Administration made a strategic decision not to use B-52s in Cambodia, whether out of concern for Cambodian lives, or for the country’s neutrality, or because of perceived strategic limits of carpet bombing. However, Nixon decided differently, and from late 1969 the U.S. Air Force began to deploy B-52s over Cambodia.


Why did the United States bombard a small agrarian country that attempted to stay out of a major war, and what were the consequences?

In the first stage of the bombing (1965-69) the U.S. goal was to pursue the Vietnamese communists retreating from South Vietnam into Cambodia, then to destroy their Cambodian sanctuaries, and cut off their supply routes from North to South Vietnam, through both Laos to the north and later, the southern Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. These early U.S. attacks failed to find, let alone hit, a mobile Vietnamese headquarters, or to stop the flow of weapons and supplies.

The second phase of the bombing (1969-72) aimed to support the slow pullout of U.S. troops from Vietnam, ironically by expanding the war to Cambodia in the hope of winning it faster by attacking the Vietnamese communists from behind. Lon Nol’s 1970 coup facilitated much more extensive U.S. action in Cambodia, including the short ground invasion and the prolonged carpet bombing, until 1973.

In 1969, Nixon first introduced B-52s into the still secret U.S. air war in Cambodia to buy time for the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Later, as Emory Swank, U.S. ambassador to Lon Nol’s Cambodia, recalled, “time was bought for the success of the program in Vietnam . . . to this extent I think some measure of gratitude is owed to the Khmers.” Former U.S. General Theodore Mataxis called it “a holding action. You know, one of those things like a rear guard you drop off. The troika’s going down the road and the wolves are closing in, and so you throw them something off and let them chew it.”43 Thus Cambodians became a decoy to protect American lives. In its attempt to deny South Vietnam to the Vietnamese communists, the U.S. drove them further into Cambodia, producing the domino effect that its Indochinese intervention had been intended to prevent. Phnom Penh would fall two weeks before Saigon.



Map showing 115,273 targets of U.S. secret bombing of Cambodia between October 1965 and August 1973. (Taylor Owen)


The final phase of the U.S. bombing, January-August 1973, aimed to stop the now rapid Khmer Rouge advance on the Cambodian capital. U.S. fear of this first Southeast Asian domino falling translated into a massive escalation of the air war that spring and summer – an unprecedented B-52 bombardment, focussed on the heavily populated areas around Phnom Penh, but also sparing few other regions of the country.44 As well as inflaming rural rage against the pro-U.S. Lon Nol government, the rain of bombs on non-combatants also reduced the relative risk of their joining the insurgency.

The impact of the resultant increased civilian casualties may not have been a primarystrategic concern for the Nixon administration. It should have been. Civilian casualties helped drive people into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970, the Vietnam War spread to Cambodia, and extensive U.S. bombing of its rural areas began.

Even before that, the initial U.S. bombardments of border areas had set in motion a highly precarious series of events leading to the extension deeper into Cambodia of the impact of the Vietnam War, contributing to Lon Nol’s 1970 coup, which also helped fuel the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge.


The final phase of the story is better known. In 1973 the U.S. Congress, angered at the destruction and the deception of the Nixon Administration, legislated a halt to the Cambodia bombing. The great damage was already done. Having grown under the rain of bombs from a few thousand to over 200,000 regular and militia forces by 1973, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh two years later. They then subjected Cambodia to a genocidal Maoist agrarian revolution. Is there a lesson here on combating insurgencies?

Apart from the large human toll, perhaps the most powerful and direct impact of the bombing was the political backlash it caused. Because Lon Nol was supporting the U.S. air war, the bombing of Cambodian villages and its significant civilian casualties provided ideal recruitment rhetoric for the insurgent Khmer Rouge.

The Nixon administration knew that the Khmer Rouge were explicitly recruiting peasants by highlighting the damage done by U.S. air strikes. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations, after investigations south of Phnom Penh, reported in May 1973 that the communists there were successfully “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.”45 Years later, journalist Bruce Palling asked a former Khmer Rouge officer from northern Cambodia if local Khmer Rouge forces had made use of the bombing for anti-U.S. propaganda:

Chhit Do: Oh yes, they did. Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched… The ordinary people … sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came… Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told… That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over… It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them …

Bruce Palling: So the American bombing was a kind of help to the Khmer Rouge?

Chhit Do: Yes, that’s right…, sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge…

The Nixon administration, aware of this consequence of its Cambodia bombing, kept the air war secret for so long that debate over its toll and political impact came far too late. Along with support from the Vietnamese communists and from Lon Nol’s deposed rival, Prince Sihanouk, the U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia was partly responsible for the rise of what had been a small-scale Khmer Rouge insurgency, which now grew capable of overthrowing the Lon Nol government, and once  it had done so in 1975, perpetrating genocide in the country.  The parallels to current dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan, where genocidal Al-Qaeda factions lurk among the insurgent forces, are poignant and telling.


Today the technology of U.S. bombing has become more sophisticated. “Unknown” targets are bombed less frequently, and collateral damage is now lower than it was. Yet it remains high, and perhaps these days, information travels faster. What are the strategic consequences of the continuing civilian death tolls that U.S. forces inflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the outrage they spawn among rural communities there? Are they worth the risk, let alone the moral consequences, to say nothing of the implications under international criminal law?

The January 13, 2006 aerial strike by a US predator drone on a village in Pakistan, killing women and children and inflaming local anti-US political passions, seems a pertinent example of what continues to occur in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Collateral damage,” in this case, even undermined the positive sentiments previously created by billions of dollars of U.S. post-earthquake aid to that part of Pakistan. Aside from the killing of innocent civilians, how many new enemies does U.S. bombing create?

In the lead-up to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, neither the U.S. media nor the Bush administration seriously included the impact of civilian casualties in public discussion of the overall war strategy. Even with official assurances that civilian casualties will be limited, when it comes to a decision to bomb a village containing a suspected terrorist, the benefit of killing the target trumps the toll on innocents. This misguided calculus is quite possibly a fundamental threat to longterm Afghan and American security.

If the Cambodians’ tragic experience teaches us anything, it is that official disregard of the immorality and miscalculation of the consequences of inflicting predictable civilian casualties stem partly from failure to understand the social contexts of insurgencies. The reasons local people help such movements do not fit into Kissingerian rationales. Nor is their support absolute or unidimensional. Those whose lives have been ruined may not look to the geopolitical rationale of the attacks; rather, understandably and often explicitly, many will blame the attackers.

Dangerous forces can reap a windfall. The strategic and moral failure of the U.S. Cambodia air campaign lay not only in the toll of possibly 150,000 civilians killed there in 1969-73 by an almost unprecedented level of carpet, cluster and incendiary bombing, but also indirectly, in its aftermath, when the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime rose from the bomb craters to cause the deaths of another 1.7 million Cambodians in 1975-79. These successive tragedies are not unrelated. It is only predictable that an insurgency in need of recruits may effectively exploit potential supporters’ hatred for those killing their family members or neighbors. That Washington has yet to learn from its past crimes and mistakes is a failure of strategic as well as moral calculation. Until it does, America’s hopes for Afghanistan and for its own improved security may be misplaced.


Ben Kiernan is the Whitney Griswold Professor of History, Chair of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies, and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University ( He is the author of How Pol Pot Came to Power (1985), The Pol Pot Regime (1996),Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia (2007), and Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007).

Taylor Owen is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Oxford.

They wrote this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal.

Recommended citation: Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, “Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 26-4-10, June 28, 2010.

Owen and Kiernan are the authors of Bombs Over Cambodia: New Light on US Air War


1 New York Times editorial, June 24, 2010, p. A32; see also, “Pakistan is Said to Pursue An Afghanistan Foothold,” New York Times, June 25, 2010, p. 1.

2 New York Times, October 14, 2002; emphasis added.

3 New York Times, March 4, 2010, p. A16.

4 Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-century History, ed. Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, New York, New Press, 2009.

5 Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, 1930-1975 (New Haven, second edition, 2004), pp. 284, 345, 349-57, 390.

6 Ben Kiernan, “The American Bombardment of Kampuchea, 1969-1973,” Vietnam Generation 1:1 (Winter 1989), 4-41, e.g. pp. 6, 13-14; accessible online here.

7 Carl Conetta, Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a Higher Rate of Civilian Bombing Casualties? Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report #13, January 18, 2002. Available here.

8 “The Americans . . . They Just Drop Their Bombs and Leave,” The Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2002.

9 Ben Kiernan, “‘Collateral damage’ means real people,” Bangkok Post, October 20, 2002.

10 Human Rights Watch, 2008. Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan.

11 United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, 2009. “Afghanistan: Mid Year Bulletin on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 2009,” pp. 10-12. Human Rights Unit, 30 July 2009. Available here.

12 Reuters AlertNet, April 15, 2010, “Spate of Afghan civilian deaths ‘disturbing.’”

13 “British officer wants US out of Afghan zone,” Guardian, August 17, 2007, pp. 1-2.

14 New York Times, March 26, 2010, “Tighter Rules Fail to Stem Deaths of Innocent Afghans at Checkpoints.”

15 Ibid 

16 “Afghan Officials Say U.S. Strike Killed 40 at Wedding Party,” New York Times, November 6, 2008, p. A19.

17 “Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War,” New York Times, May 7, 2009, p. A1.

18 CNN, June 23, 2009.

19 CNN, June 2, 2009.

20 See e.g., “U.N. Sees Rise in Attacks by Afghan Insurgents,” New York Times, June 20, 2010, p. 12

21 The Guardian, February 14, 2010; New York Times, February 15, 2010, “Errant Rocket Kills Civilians in Afghanistan,” pp. 1, A6.

22 AFP, February 18, 2010.

23 BBC News, February 22, 2010; New York Times, February 23, 2010, “NATO Airstrike Is Said to Have Killed 27 Civilians in Afghanistan,” p. A4.

24 “U.N. Sees Rise in Attacks by Afghan Insurgents,” New York Times, June 20, 2010, p. 12.

25 New York Times, March 21, 2010, “Bombs Kill 13 Afghans; Elderly Man Dies in Raid.”

26 New York Times, June 20, 2010, “Afghan Civilians Said to Be Killed in an Airstrike.”

27 The Washington Independent, January 14, 2010.

28 Human Rights Watch, 2008. Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan. pp. 3-4.

29 ABC News, May 29, 2010, “US Drone Crew Blamed for Afghan Civilian Deaths;” see also New York Times, May 30, 2010, p. 6, and June 3, 2010, p. A10.

30 The Washington Post, May 30, 2010, “Drone operators blamed in airstrike that killed Afghan civilians in February.”

31 To be precise, there were 35,914 U.S. B-52 attacks on Cambodia in 1969 and 1970.

32 See Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power, p. 350.

33 William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, New York, 1979, p. 145.

34 Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War, New York, 2003, p. 479.

35 Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, New York, 1983, p. 64.

36 The GIS database comprised data originally recovered by the National Combat Command Information Processing System (NIPS) on missions conducted between 1965 and 1975.  The data was classified top secret and maintained by the Joint Chiefs of Staff until declassified and delivered to the National Archives in 1976. It was originally compiled in four separate databases. These files are Combat Activities File (CACTA – October 1965-December 1970); Southeast Asia Database (SEADAB – January 1970-June 1975); the Strategic Air Command’s Combat Activities report (SACCOACT – June 1965-August 1973); and herbicide data files (HERBS – July 1965-February 1971). E. Miguel and G. Roland (2005), The Long Run Impact of Bombing Vietnam. Draft Manuscript, p. 45, and Tom Smith, ‘Southeast Asia Air Combat Data,’ The DISAM Journal, Winter Issue, 2001.

37 See Ben Kiernan, “The American Bombardment of Kampuchea, 1969-1973,” Vietnam Generation (1989), accessible from; Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, “Bombs over Cambodia,” The Walrus (Toronto), October 2006, pp. 62-69.

38 In The Walrus magazine in October 2006, we stated that newly-released Pentagon bombing data revised dramatically upwards the heretofore accepted total of 539,129 tons of U.S. bombs dropped on Cambodia. The total of the individual bombing load figures entered in the database’s records of 230,516 aircraft sorties over Cambodia indicates that from 1965 to 1975 Cambodia would have been the target of 2,756,941 tons of U.S. bombs, nearly 5 times more than previously believed. The Phnom Penh Post reported a similar figure: “The [data] tapes show that 43,415 bombing raids were made on Cambodia dropping more than 2 million tons of bombs and other ordinance including land mines, experimental weapons and rockets” (April 14-27, 2000). However, this tonnage data may be incorrect. In new work using the original Air Force SEADAB and CACTA databases, Holly High and others have re-analyzed the total Cambodia tonnage figures and argue in a forthcoming article that the total tonnage dropped on Cambodia was at least 472,313 tons, or somewhat higher. While both data sets derive from the same U.S. Air Force database, the one we used for Cambodia had been decoded by an independent contractor, as was the database the U.S. provided to Laos. The resulting GIS databases for Cambodia and Laos have been used extensively in both countries to guide de-mining efforts there, and have proven accurate for that purpose. As we did not ourselves decode the Cambodia data from the original Air Force tapes, and so far have been unsuccessful in our efforts to contact the independent contractor who did so, we cannot yet be certain as to how the total tonnage field was calculated. It remains undisputed that in 1969-73 alone, around 500,000 tons of U.S. bombs fell on Cambodia, one-sixth of the total bombing of Indochina (six million tons over nine years). This figure excludes the additional bomb tonnage dropped on Cambodia by the U.S.-backed air force of the Republic of Viet Nam, which also flew numerous bombing missions there in 1970 and 1971. William Shawcross reported that from 1970, “Cambodia was open house for the South Vietnamese Air Force,” and subsequently “the South Vietnamese continued to regard Cambodia as a free fire zone” (Sideshow, pp. 174-75, 214-15, 222-23.)

39 Miguel and Roland, Long Run Impact, p. 2

40 Grolier, 1996, cited but not fully referenced in Miguel and Roland, Long Run Impact.

41 Over four years, this group conducted 1,835 missions and captured 24 prisoners, but did not find the Viet Cong command center. Shawcross, Sideshow, p. 64.

42 The Australian, Jan. 15, 1966, quoted in Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power, p. 285.

43 Shawcross, Sideshow, pp. 331, 191.

44 Kissinger made the case for escalation, stating “our analysis was that the Khmer Rouge would agree to a negotiated settlement only if denied of hope of military victory.” Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War, 476.

45 “Efforts of Khmer Insurgents to Exploit for Propaganda Purposes Damage Done by Airstrikes in Kandal Province,” CIA Intelligence Information Cable, May 2, 1973; for more details see Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (New Haven, third edition, 2008), 22; and Kiernan, “The American Bombardment of Kampuchea, 1969-1973,”Vietnam Generation 1:1 (1989), 4-41; see

Of Post Doctors and Glorious Geniuses



PHNOM PENH — Late last month, the prime minister of Cambodia awarded his long-serving finance minister the title “Kitti Setah Banditt,” which roughly translates to “Glorious Economist of Genius” and is the supposed equivalent of a doctoral degree. It was a variation on an obscure “Glorious Genius” honor that seemingly came out of nowhere in 2011, when it was given to two senior leaders of the governing Cambodian People’s Party as well as the prime minister’s wife.

A similar title — Glorious Preacher of Genius — was recently conferred on several high-ranking members of the Buddhist monastic order, which is closely aligned with C.P.P.

When the powers that be aren’t burnishing their credentials, they invent them out of whole cloth.

Khmer-language newspapers frequently carry advertisements congratulating officials on their latest academic degrees. Mong Reththy, a C.P.P. senator and businessman, has amassed at least three doctorates. Cheam Yeap, the head of Parliament’s finance committee, has two doctorates, as well as what he calls a “post Ph.D.” from Isles International University, an unaccredited institution and a diploma mill that once operated in Cambodia. In official communications, his name is prefaced by the title “His Excellency Post Doctor.”

In 2010 Nhiek Bun Chhay, leader of the C.P.P.-aligned Funcinpec Party, claimed to have earned, after studying online for seven years, a Ph.D. in dispute resolution from St. Clements University in Switzerland, apparently another degree mill. Chea Sim, the Senate president and C.P.P. leader, has at least three Ph.D.’s — including one in “high leadership in the Senate” — as well as two honorary doctorates, despite never having progressed beyond high school.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, for his part, says he received a doctorate in political science from the National Political Academy in Hanoi in 1991 and at least 10 honorary Ph.D.’s, many from obscure universities. On his Web site, he also boasts of being a member of the bar, a five-star general, a Royal Academician and an Honorable Professor of Diplomatic and International Relations with the Universidad Empresarial de Costa Rica.

One likely reason Cambodia’s leaders fetishize doctorates is insecurity: Many received little schooling because of interruptions to their studies caused by civil war and then the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1960s and 1970s. And while they do, Cambodia’s educational system remains abysmal. According to a 2011 World Bank report, Cambodia spends just 2.3 percent of G.D.P. on education — less than other low-income countries — and the share of the budget allocated for teachers’ wages has declined over the past few years, even as the budget for military wages has increased significantly.

Primary-school teachers are so badly paid they often collect bribes from students before class. Only around one-fifth of students progress to high school. At even the best universities in the country, the quality of education is poor by international standards and graduates learn few of the skills sought by the labor market. A few Cambodian universities offer doctoral programs, but with only about 7 percent of university-level teachers holding Ph.D.’s, any student with serious scholarly aspirations must go abroad.

Instead of accumulating phony doctorates, Cambodia’s leaders would do better to improve the quality of the country’s schools and universities so that one day they might produce their own — legitimate — Ph.D.’s.

Julia Wallace is managing editor of The Cambodia Daily.

The Fresh Princes of Phnom Penh


May 3, 2013, 8:18 am

PHNOM PENH — Ten years ago, the children of Cambodia’s ruling elite were busy cementing interfactional alliances with a dizzying blitz of marriages. Having accomplished that, they’re now working on taking over the country.

At least six sons of high-ranking members of the Cambodian People’s Party, which has had a stranglehold on the government for over a decade, have been announced as parliamentary candidates in July’s national elections, and their candidacies are being actively promoted by their famous fathers as pre-election barnstorming heats up.

Even if there are no more angels, there are still baby angels,” Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly said in a recent campaign speech. In a reference to the angel scattering flowers that is the longstanding symbol of the C.P.P., he was anointing his and his associates’ progenies as Cambodia’s next generation of leaders.

Hun Many, the youngest of Hun Sen’s three sons, is his deputy cabinet chief; he also heads the C.P.P.’s Youth Association, a crucial conduit for recruiting young people into the party. Now, at 30, he is also running for a seat in the National Assembly. So is the son of Interior Minister Sar Kheng. At 33, Sar Sokha has already risen through the ranks of his father’s ministry to become a senior police official, and is married to the daughter of the former chief of the army.

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, center, walked ahead of government officials during an inauguration ceremony for a road in Phnom Penh in June 2010.Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesPrime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, center, walked ahead of government officials during an inauguration ceremony for a road in Phnom Penh in June 2010.

Other newly announced candidates include Cheam Chansophoan, son of Cheam Yeap, a prominent member of Parliament; Say Sam Al, son of the Senate’s president; Ty Dina, son of the Supreme Court president; and Dy Vichea, the son of the late, immensely powerful (and immensely feared) national police chief, Hok Lundy.

Dy Vichea, a senior police official, also happens to be married to Hun Sen’s daughter, Mana, a businesswoman with investments in nearly every sector. (This is a second marriage for both: His first wife was the daughter of Hun Sen’s brother, while her first husband was the son of the army’s procurement czar.) Mana’s brother Manith is married to Dy Vichea’s sister Chindavy.

Manith and Hun Sen’s other son, Manet, are also highly placed, with each holding multiple positions. Manith is a colonel in the army, deputy head of the Military Intelligence Unit and head of an ambitious new land-titling program staffed by student volunteers loyal to Hun Sen. Manet, a West Point graduate, is a major general, deputy chief of his father’s bodyguard unit and head of the army’s counterterrorism unit. He is widely perceived as his father’s favorite son and heir apparent.

In a nationally televised speech Thursday, Hun Sen told voters he believed Manet was the child of a neak ta, a powerful local spirit, who had been living in a tree nearby. “When he was born, there was a bright light flying around the cottage’s roof,” Hun Sen said, before turning to his son. “You should go visit that banyan tree, because you come from that tree.”

Even as it builds a dynasty of young politicians ever more closely linked through blood and business ties, the C.P.P. has denied any claims of nepotism. It argues instead that the children of the ruling elite are simply the most qualified candidates for the positions they hold or seek. This is not untrue, since these children of privilege attend the best international schools in Phnom Penh, and are often sent abroad for expensive degrees. But merit hardly seems to be the point.

The prime minister has been warning voters recently of what may happen if the C.P.P. loses power: New infrastructure projects will end; the schools and pagodas bearing Hun Sen’s name will be destroyed; civil war may break out. “Just tick the angel box and you are electing Hun Sen,” he has advised. He will probably be heard. The election’s outcome already seems inevitable, so why not tick that box and be on the side of the angels?



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Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary form of government. In the most recent national elections, held in 2008, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 90 of 123 National Assembly seats. Most observers assessed that the election process improved over previous elections but did not fully meet international standards. The CPP consolidated control of the three branches of government and other national institutions, with most power concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Security forces reported to civilian authorities.

A weak judiciary that sometimes failed to provide due process or a fair trial procedure continued to be a leading human rights problem. The courts lacked human and financial resources and were subject to corruption and political influence. Their ineffectiveness in adjudicating land disputes that arose from the government’s granting of economic land concessions, including to ruling party officials, fueled sometimes-violent disputes in every province. The continued criminalization of defamation and disinformation and a broad interpretation of criminal incitement constrained freedom of expression.

Members of the security forces reportedly committed arbitrary killings. Prison guards and police abused detainees, often to extract confessions, and prison conditions were harsh. Human rights monitors reported arbitrary arrests and prolonged pretrial detention. The government at times interfered with freedom of assembly. Corruption remained pervasive, governmental human rights bodies reportedly were ineffective, and discrimination and trafficking in men, women, and children persisted. Domestic violence and child abuse occurred, and education of children was inadequate.

The government prosecuted officials who committed abuses, but impunity for corruption and other abuses persisted.