Cambodia’s Crackdown: What Happens When an Autocrat Shutters a Newspaper

Cambodia’s Crackdown: What Happens When an Autocrat Shutters a Newspaper

Cambodia’s Crackdown: What Happens When an Autocrat Shutters a Newspaper

As Cambodia turns its back on the West, Hun Sen shuts down The Cambodia Daily.


Chhorn Chansy is a child of the ’80s—not the American ’80s but the Cambodian ’80s, which means his nostalgia is not for hair rock and acid-washed jeans, but for the days when the whole village would crowd around a single radio to listen to whatever broadcasts they could pick up.

At the time, Cambodia was a single-party communist state ruled by a secretive and insular Vietnam-backed government. News might as well not have existed for his family or their neighbors. Picking up foreign programs would have been nearly impossible, even if it weren’t illegal. When they managed to get a spot around the radio, they listened to the warble and drone of the ancient chapei guitar or the voice of Sin Sisamouth, the honey-voiced ’60s crooner, singing Chansy’s favorite song, “Morning Star”: “Oh, the night, the deep, dark night. How lonely I am.”

His parents grew rice; his parents’ parents grew rice. Nobody could remember not growing rice. Almost as soon as he could walk, Chansy was sent out to keep the family cows from nipping at the fringes of rice paddies. His family thought he was an exceptionally bright child because he could herd six cows at once. To get him an education and a chance at a better life, they sent him away to live at an orphanage.

Today Chansy is 34 and one of the best journalists in Cambodia, where he has spent much of the past decade as an editor at The Cambodia Daily, parlaying his talent for herding cows into a position managing the paper’s 14 reporters. But he lost that job two weeks ago when the Cambodian government imposed a draconian $6.3 million tax bill on the newspaper and shut it down, as part of an abrupt crackdown on free expression and political dissent that has left many here deeply shaken. Chansy suddenly has lots of time to think about the past and the future, which are both starting to seem empty. “I’m not sure what I should do. I’m concerned about what’s happening to press freedom in Cambodia,” he said. “I’m concerned that there is only one voice, one side, like how in the past we only had an AM [radio] channel. I am concerned that will happen again.”

Sitting in a café along Phnom Penh’s riverfront last week, wearing the dazed but slightly frantic expression of the freshly unemployed, he kept reflexively checking his phone, where news alerts and story tips from sources were still flooding in. He was full of ideas for articles that needed to be written, but had no place to put them—a torment for a journalist. He said what he most remembered from his 1980s childhood was how quiet everything was, how empty of anything except the rhythm of the growing season and the quest to keep surviving. “Back then,” he said, “we didn’t know how big the world was.”

Chansy was born four years after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, during which some 2.2 million Cambodians—about one-fifth of the country’s population—were killed and starved as part of a quest to impose a grim form of agrarian Maoism and create a nation of rice-farming peasants. The Khmer Rouge were finally swept out in 1979 by an invading Vietnamese army headed by a small contingent of Cambodian defectors, but civil war continued to rage along the country’s border with Thailand. For the next decade, a Vietnam-appointed communist government kept strict control.

In 1991, after protracted peace negotiations, the United Nations came to Cambodia to form a temporary government, the largest project ever of the kind. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, or UNTAC, was meant to establish peace and lay the groundwork for “free and fair elections” in 1993. Soldiers, police, and administrators from some 100 nations arrived—at one point, there were as many as 21,000 foreign personnel in a country of only 10 million people. A long-standing 9 pm curfew was lifted; it finally became legal to listen to foreign radio programs. Radios began to seep into Chansy’s village, after UNTAC distributed them to villagers by the tens of thousands, and for the first time, he heard of the world outside his province. “We knew the big stories, the small stories, about big politics in Cambodia, business, agriculture, land disputes, human rights, the society…. It’s like everything changed,” he said.

The world poured into Cambodia, eager to save the country from its own past. By the 2000s, Cambodia would have one of the highest numbers of NGOs per capita in the world. Orphanages proliferated faster than orphans. Instead, they filled up with children like Chansy, so desperate to get an education that they were willing to leave their families and sleep in barracks for years. AIDS arrived. Foreign donors paid for many of the country’s essential needs, and continued to do so even when it was obvious that Cambodia’s kleptocratic leaders were pocketing a substantial portion of the cash. Then they funded an anti-corruption law and an anti-corruption institution, which in 2010 moved into a spacious headquarters and promptly began prosecuting the prime minister’s political enemies. They paid for airtight laws to be drafted, and insisted upon a constitution that guaranteed a full array of individual rights. Their aid carried conditions—keep democratizing—but even when those conditions were not met, the money kept coming.

The entire Western intervention in Cambodia, from a distance, resembles a kind of reverse cargo cult, devoted to the belief that ritualistically importing and reassembling the components of Western democracies in a war-ravaged Southeast Asian country would magically make them take root and thrive. But, beneath the surface, Cambodian society kept flowing much as it always had, eschewing the abstractions of “institution building” and individual rights in favor of more familiar options like patron-client relationships in which strongmen provide khnong, or “back,” to underlings in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. Steve Heder, one of the foremost scholars of modern Cambodia, dubbed the resulting political theatrics, in which superficial commitments to democracy are undergirded by violence and predation, an “involuted façade state.”

The biggest khnong, now and for most of living memory, has belonged to Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter who rose to power in 1985 as a gawky young functionary appointed by the occupying Vietnamese. If they thought his callowness would make him pliant, they were wrong. He showed himself to be a canny, ruthless politician with a mind of his own. He has not abdicated the premiership since, despite having technically lost the 1993 UN-administered election. While that poll, and subsequent ones in 1998, 2003, 2008, and 2013, were ostensibly free and fair, power always seemed to revert back to the same small coterie. Hun Sen has spent the past 32 years methodically consolidating power, first eliminating rival warring factions, then wiping the floor with the royalist opposition of the 1990s, then getting rid of challengers within his own party, often using the law itself as a weapon. Now, finally, he is turning to the remnants of the democratic opposition and the foreign presence that has lingered since the days of UNTAC. The current crackdown, seen in this light, has a feeling of inevitability to it. Today, in 2017, Cambodia is once again a de facto single-party state, ruled by nearly the exact same group of men who held power when Chansy was a child.

The Cambodia Daily was one of the interventions that defined the UNTAC era and its aftermath. It was a tiny newspaper founded by a brash, egotistical ex-Newsweek journalist, Bernie Krisher, a high priest of the cargo cult. The Daily had an explicitly foreignizing mission: to create a free press in Cambodia out of whole cloth, in an environment where nearly every source of information was aligned with one faction or another. For most of its existence, the paper ran on little more than fumes and the iron will of Bernie, who charmed or bulldozed his way through every obstacle.

I arrived in Phnom Penh to work there in 2009 and was immediately captivated by the entire scrappy and unlikely enterprise, even as I silently fumed at its many contradictions and injustices. I loved my Cambodian colleagues’ fierce but low-key intelligence, their lewd jokes that would never fly in an American workplace, the brazen honesty (“You look fat”), the way they would spend hours sweating atop a motorbike through dusty back-streets chasing a lead, but still did everything possible to return to the office by noon to share a lunch of fish soup and rice with their coworkers. Often, new reporters struggled for months to understand the concept of a quotation or a lede. But they were deeply committed to the foundation of the endeavor: putting new, true facts into the world.

At the same time, the newspaper, like many other foreign interventions in Cambodia, was deeply flawed. We all made low salaries, but Khmer staff were paid far less. Bernie himself could be profoundly generous, but also imperious. For a while, he rationed toilet paper by the square. He hired and fired at will, ordered a reporter to break up with his girlfriend, and docked people’s pay for obscure infractions like accidentally sitting in a chair reserved for one of his favorites, who rarely showed up to work. When the local reporters attempted to form a union, he easily broke their resolve by importing new Cambodians from another project he ran. It did not matter to him that they were not actually journalists.

One of them was Chansy, who had become a teacher after learning English in the orphanage—which, not coincidentally, was also run by Bernie. He still remembers his fright at being summoned from his tiny home in a rural area, where his wife sold eggs and gasoline from a roadside stall and he could access the Internet only via a satellite connection on the back of a roving motorbike, to a meeting at the luxe Hotel InterContinental in Phnom Penh, where he was summarily informed that he was now no longer a teacher but a journalist. He had barely any clue what a newspaper reporter did. 

To me, episodes like this epitomized the insanity of the Daily, but also, in some ways, its brilliance. I was disturbed by Bernie’s lack of commitment to institution building or sustainability, but these things seemed to upset me far more than they did my coworkers. They were, after all, inured to life under the rule of a capricious, personalist dictator, and they often seemed to see my outrage as amusingly naive. To this day, Chansy views Bernie, who is now elderly and ailing and has not been to Cambodia for years, as a second father, someone who picked him up and gave him a new life. “I am loyal to him forever,” he told me.

The deep, dense networks of mutual loyalty and protection, of khnong, cultivated by Bernie were one reason the Daily survived as long as it did, but they also likely contributed to the newspaper’s downfall, once he became so sick he had to hand it to his daughter to manage. With Bernie’s intense vision and personal connections, he often acted like paperwork and procedure were for lesser mortals. The $6.3 million tax bill seems absurdly high; the Daily barely ever turned a profit. But it’s also true that, for most of its existence, the Daily didn’t pay taxes and was neither incorporated nor registered as an NGO. It took advantage of Cambodia’s freewheeling regulatory regime even as the paper’s journalists publicly criticized it. “Sometimes I behave like a dictator who believes in democracy, but doesn’t practice it,” Bernie told Wired magazine in 1999. The newspaper, like its host country, was a kind of involuted façade state.

Still, despite the improbable (and possibly illegal) nature of his recruitment, Chansy thrived at the Daily. Being a good journalist, as Bernie intuited, is less about training or background than being open to the world and its complexities. At the beginning, he mostly reported on the things he knew intimately: floods, droughts, land, rice. Even the other Cambodians saw him as unworldly and yokelish. But he worked, and learned. His English prose was off-kilter but beautiful; we would often pass his raw copy around the office and marvel at how it read like poetry. His stories became longer and more abstract. I watched him become an editor, get his first smartphone, learn to juggle competing interests in and out of the newsroom. The articles he wrote, particularly his coverage of a messy urban land-grab by a crony of Hun Sen’s, began to have real-world effects, but even now he is careful to be precise about the role he played. “We are not judges, we are not the government, so we cannot judge the people when they have an issue, we cannot get them to win or lose,” he said. “But what we can do is that we can print the issue, bring it to the public, the society, the government. And then they know.”

Time also changed things. The Internet, in particular, has made Cambodia freer and more open. In 2009, communicating with sources in rural areas was a struggle. Sometimes they could be reached only during brief windows when they could beg time on a borrowed phone. Sometimes they traveled to our office to share their news in person. Stringers were paid by handing an envelope of cash to a bus driver on a provincial route and hoping it arrived intact. By the time the Daily closed, Chansy often communicated with groups of forestry activists via messaging apps, and payments flew through the ether on mobile networks. Earlier this year, when I covered nationwide local elections for The New York Times, it was hard not to feel optimistic about the ways in which the country had been transformed. News about the election spread fast and wide. A democratic opposition party, founded in 2012, made unprecedented gains, winning over 30 percent of the seats. Many believed the opposition could unseat Hun Sen in parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

Now many of these gains have been abruptly overturned in the most sweeping crackdown on political dissent and free expression in two decades. Aside from the Daily’s shuttering, Radio Free Asia has been forced to close its Phnom Penh bureau, Voice of America is under threat from tax authorities, and the National Democratic Institute has been kicked out. Nineteen independent radio stations were forced off the air, eliminating the main source of news for most rural Cambodians. The leader of the opposition party was arrested in the dead of night on September 3 without a warrant and driven to a remote maximum-security prison, where he remains, charged with plotting treason in cahoots with the American government. These events have unfolded with chilling swiftness and efficiency.

Although most of these tactics have long been part of Hun Sen’s repertoire of repression, the current attacks on independent media and opposition figures have prompted widespread anxiety and soul-searching both in Cambodia and abroad, perhaps because their scope and scale seem to mark the definitive end of something: a 25-year arc when the country seemed to be, despite all its problems, becoming more peaceful, prosperous, and free. The 1990s and 2000s were marred by assassinations, acid attacks, vast corruption, and bloody factional warfare, but all of these could be explained away as a hangover from a still bloodier past. But the problems emerging now are problems of the present and future, linked to globalization, the rise of China, and Hun Sen’s own authoritarian maneuvers, whose outlines have become clearer as external threats have receded.

Cambodia has risen to become a middle-income country over the past two decades, and the stream of Western aid will soon slow to a trickle. The Chinese government, however, has pronounced itself ready and eager to keep funding Cambodia’s growth, and has made it clear that there are no conditions for its largesse—except loyalty. (Alone among Cambodia’s major donors, Beijing has expressed support for the ongoing state suppression.) At the same time, the new avenues opened up to ordinary people by growing wealth and mobility, and the receding memory of war and privation, have made them thirstier for genuine political choice. This seems to have deeply unsettled Hun Sen, even though it is in part a testament to his own success.

By now, it has become obvious that he views any challenge to his political primacy as tantamount to treason. The rambling, hours-long speeches that are his trademark—during which he dispenses threats, makes jokes, and hands down pronouncements that have the force of law—make clear that he believes himself, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and the Cambodian state to be one and the same, and inviolable. Ignoring entirely the fact that elections are scheduled for 2018 and 2023, he recently announced that he intended to rule for at least 10 more years. “Are you jealous?” he taunted world leaders.

In the absence of a newspaper, Chansy and his former colleagues have taken to sharing news stories and information about the procession of the crackdown in a private Facebook chat group they’ve named, in self-mocking fashion, Ladies Men. These days, news often breaks first in Ladies Men. When I want insight into the political situation, I check in with them. There couldn’t be a more obvious, or depressing, metaphor: The best journalists in the country are unearthing news and sending it into a closed loop, to be read only by other unemployed journalists.

Underpinning all these obsessive private conversations is an incipient panic about what the future holds for this generation, a fear that everything might go dark again. “Let’s go back to the rice paddy fields—how about that?” another friend who once worked for the Daily wrote bitterly on Facebook last week. Cambodia’s information minister, whose job it is to regulate the news media, “liked” the post, a message not lost on my friend.

Chansy, too, keeps talking about giving up and heading home to farm cassava, but he can’t quite commit to the idea. He is no longer what Cambodians call a neak srok srai, a person of the rice-paddy fields; he left the 1980s behind forever when he entered Bernie’s orphanage. And so what appears to be the blatant failure of the Western intervention in Cambodia might, in fact, be masking a more fundamental success. The newspaper wasn’t sustainable, wasn’t designed to be, but the people were. We see it in Ladies Men, that this urge to share information and put it out into the world does not go away easily. Even though he has no stories to write, Chansy can’t stop looking at his phone, checking the news. His own son and daughter will have grown up in a country that never knew life without peace—or smartphones. They know how big the world is.

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