Chinese Debt Fears Intensify, CPP Takes Aim at ‘Extremists,’ U.S. Honors Imprisoned Activist
Good morning, Cambodia. It's Friday, February 3, and this is your Weekly Dispatch.
GRAFT LAUGH: Cambodia was ranked the third most-corrupt country in Asia, behind North Korea and Myanmar. Unconcerned officials barely bothered to respond, dismissing the detailed report as the “opinion” of one organization.
SEWED UP: More than 10,000 garment workers are temporarily jobless as the sector suffers weak global demand. Dozens of factories have shut and more than 100 have suspended operations. Industry leaders hope 2023 is a rebound.
TOURISM TEARS: Three years. It will be at least three years before the Kingdom’s tourist sector returns to pre-pandemic levels, officials estimate. Hotels and tour agencies are getting a tax break until better times return.
How much debt is too much? When does a benefactor become your boss?
Hun Sen is off to Beijing next week to ask for some $4 billion — enough to cover a high-speed train line to Thailand — and possibly much more.
The Strongman’s growing reliance on easy Chinese loans has raised fears the Kingdom could stumble into a debt trap, like Laos or Sri Lanka.
Public debt currently runs about $10 billion, or about 37% of GDP. China holds more than 40% of that debt, and its loan terms are shrouded in secrecy, making it impossible to assess the true impact. Bilateral trade volume, meanwhile, reached $14.5 billion last year, up nearly 20%.
Cambodia insists China has no intention of trapping an “iron-clad” friend. Others are not nearly as certain.
Peace and prosperity for supporters, total destruction for the opposition — that’s the CPP’s gameplan after its certain victory in this year’s national election. The ruling party concluded a two-day congress with a five-point, five-year strategy, which included a list of ongoing goals.
Some, like a landmine-free Cambodia, are well underway. Others — like an “advanced multi-party democratic state” that respects human rights and the rule of law — are more aspirational. (Critics might say, “delusional.”)
The political roadmap also calls for the destruction of “extremist” policies and actions, language aimed directly at the opposition. CPP critics, many who have fled the country in fear, say it’s the ruling party that has become ”extreme,” using a subservient legal system, violence and intimidation to silence any form of democratic debate.
Ouch. In a major snub to the Cambodian government, the U.S. named Chhim Sithar, the imprisoned NagaWorld union leader, as one of 10 global recipients of its Human Rights Defender Award.
U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy said: “She is a courageous and tenacious labor union leader who peacefully advocates for the rights of Cambodian workers.”
The NagaWorld union began protesting layoffs enforced by the casino in Dec 2021. Chhim Sithar was re-arrested in November for violating terms of an earlier release. She faces incitement charges for leading the protests.
The U.S. and rights groups have protested her arrest. Critics have alleged close ties between NagaWorld and the authorities.
Hun Manet is leaning into his future role as politician-in-chief, clapping back at critics who suggested his campaign violated laws against military officials supporting political parties or candidates. Manet, a four-star general, pointed to an article of the Election Law, which says service members may engage in politics if not in uniform.
Private debt surged to 180% of GDP in December, a 20% leap over 12 months. Banks loaned more than $55 billion to the private sector in 2022, according to the central bank. Lingering weakness from Covid-19 and cash demands for reopening led to the spike, the bank said.
The government rejected Transparency International’s annual Corruption Index, calling the report unscientific, inconsistent with international principals and the “opinion of one organization.” The report ranked Cambodia 150 out of 180 countries, and the third-most corrupt in Asia after North Korea and Myanmar. TI pointed to systemic corruption and the loss of personal freedoms, and offered six key recommendations.
More than 10,000 garment workers are out of a job — and staring at permanent unemployment — as the sector faces weakening global demand and declining orders. Dozens of factories have closed and more than 100 have suspended operations. The Ministry of Labor said things were better last year than 2021, and it expects more improvement in 2023.
The tourism sector is settling in for a slow recovery, with officials predicting at least three years before reaching pre-pandemic levels. Hopes are pinned on the return of Chinese tourists, which brought in $1.9 billion in 2019, and the SEA Games in May. The government will extend a tax break for hotels and tour agencies until better times return.
Cambodians spent an estimated $34 million on mobile gaming last year, and the industry is on track to take in more than $45 million by 2027. Globally, eSports represents a billion-dollar business. Cambodia is just getting started, and top players can earn serious money.
Khieu Samphan, the last surviving Khmer Rouge leader, was transferred to state prison after losing his final appeal. The 91-year-old will serve two life sentences for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The husband of a woman murdered in a NagaWorld bathroom offered $1,000 for information on the whereabouts of an “unofficial” suspect. Internet gumshoes sent the widower plenty of photos — but police investigators said the speculation of online sleuths was not helping.
Twenty years ago, thousands of protesters rampaged through Phnom Penh, burning and looting Thai-owned businesses as payback over unverified insults by a Thai actress. The mob smashed through the gates at the Thai embassy, burned Thai-owned telephone and television offices and destroyed restaurants. The Cambodia Daily looks back at the week’s coverage.
January 28, 2003
Thai TV Star’s Angkor Claims Spark Outrage
January 30, 2003
Riots Erupt From Thai Embassy Protest
January 31, 2003
Raging Mob Pillages, Destroys Royal Phnom Penh Hotel
January 31, 2003
Concerned Investors Look for Government to Mend Damage
February 1, 2003
Riots Damage Cambodia’s Image Abroad
February 3, 2003
57 People Charged Over Anti-Thai Rioting
February 4, 2003
Hun Sen Takes Beating on International Stage
BACKPAGES: From The Cambodia Daily Vault
Controversial Piseth Pilika Booklet Sold Out
February 1, 2003
Copies of a controversial booklet on the life and death of Cambodia’s most famous actress and classical Khmer dancer, Piseth Pilika, have sold out, just days after vendors began hawking them outside the Sam Rainsy Party Headquarters, party officials said.
Faded Photographs Hold KR Prisoner’s Memories
February 1, 2003
Bou Meng last saw his young wife in 1976 as several brutal interrogators forced the terrified woman to meticulously pose for her mug shot at Tuol Sleng prison — a Phnom Penh high school the Khmer Rouge converted into the charnel house of the communist revolution.
Forest Monitor Fired at ‘Frank’ Donor Meeting
January 30, 2003
Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered forestry watchdog Global Witness to be replaced in three months at Tuesday’s meeting between the government and international donors—daylong discussions that were described by foreign participants as “frank.”
Photos: Chhim Sithar, Facebook. Khieu Samphan, ECCC via Flickr.
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