At Capital Coffee Shops, Political Conversations Tainted by Fear

Many of the news media’s favorite political analysts aren’t picking up their telephones. They say they are busy with work, traveling abroad or focusing on their studies.

Even foreign analysts are treading carefully. Sophal Ear, a Cambodian-born academic based in California who is widely quoted in English-language media, now prefaces emails to reporters with admonitions not to refer to him as a “government critic” or to “SAY THAT I SAID THIS OR THAT OF A PERSON OR ENTITY IN CAMBODIA.”

cam coffee talk channa
Men talk at a coffee on Phnom Penh’s Street 178.(Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

In the wake of the July murder of analyst Kem Ley, the jailing last month of commentator Kim Sok and a spate of threats to analysts from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the professionals aren’t the only ones parsing their words.

Those ensconced in the faded lawnchairs of Phnom Penh’s cafes, where the capital’s middle-aged and underemployed political observers have long found a home, say that they, too, fear speaking too loudly around the wrong company.

“Here, I trust my friends,” said a 64-year-old tuk-tuk driver, who called himself Sothy, at a cafe across from the National Museum.

“But besides this place, I don’t trust anyone. They might do something to us.”

For the capital’s armchair politicos, many of whom hold a dim view of the ruling CPP,  “they” are lurking everywhere, from plainclothes spies at an adjacent table to the local village chief eavesdropping on constituents’ anti-government dinner table chatter.

“If people want to do something, we need to look around first,” Sothy said. “Because right now, the power is in the hands of one man.”

Cafe-goers say it’s been years since they felt this frightened of speaking up in public, excepting the safe space of a table of good friends out of earshot of the authorities. Almost no one was willing to give their full names to reporters, fearing prison, bribes and beatings from the government.

“I don’t think there’s any safe place except my home,” said Chatha, the sole woman at a table of friends at a cafe near Wat Phnom. Even there, “if strange people come by, we become alert and stop talking.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the public had nothing to fear from speaking their minds—unless they make baseless accusations.

“I do not see a government policy to take legal action against the brothers and sisters who drink coffee and talk about political issues,” Mr. Eysan said.

“You can say whatever you want, it’s your right to freedom of expression. But don’t make accusations,” he added. “If you make an accusation, we may ask for evidence. If you don’t have any, you must be responsible.”

But if interviews with a handful of coffee-sippers is any judge, political events of the past 18 months have taken their toll on free speech in the longtime opposition stronghold of Phnom Penh.

Some political watchers cited the October 2015 beating of two CNRP lawmakers by three members of Mr. Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, who were awarded with promotions after their release from prison, as the start of a wave of government repression.

Many mentioned Kem Ley as a cautionary tale against speaking out, repeating the claim that landed Mr. Sok in prison: that the analyst was killed for speaking out against the government.

As 57-year-old tuk-tuk driver Mana put it, “The law is in the mouth of the government.”

Thy, a 55-year-old landlord at the same table as Mana, said the pressure to keep quiet was “much worse” than it had been five or even 10 years ago.

“I don’t know whether it’s because it’s close to the election or not, but I know now, things are very serious,” he said.

Thy estimated that 80 percent of his neighbors supported the opposition, but pretended otherwise in public. He described being courted by the commune and village chiefs in the area, who doled out small amounts of riel and basic household goods, urging Thy and his neighbors to vote for the CPP.

“We expressed our support, but in our mind, we don’t trust them,” he said.

At least two men went as far as to compare the mood to the one they felt decades earlier, during the Pol Pot regime.

Mr. Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the daylight murder of Kem Ley and jailing of Mr. Sok had likely chilled the public’s enthusiasm for speaking openly.

“The Chinese have a proverb: Kill the chicken, scare the monkey,” he wrote in an email. “I guess the one-two punch has had its intended effect. People are scared into silence.”

But Chatha, the female shopkeeper, predicted that perceived oppression by the CPP would embolden resistance to the government. “When the government strongly pressures the people, the people will strongly respond to them,” she said.

Thy, the landlord, agreed, but said that fear, for him, remained a powerful deterrent.

“We really want a huge demonstration because we hate the current government,”  he said. “But if we go, there is no choice between becoming a dead body or sitting behind bars.”

Thy said he thought that free elections would end poorly for the ruling party, but predicted Mr. Hun Sen would remain firmly in charge unless foreign governments intervened.

“I think that if he loses the election, he will use Defense Minister Tea Banh to stage a coup to ensure they stay in power,” he said.

Khieu Yam, a 54-year-old motorbike taxi driver, denied any political affiliation but said it was his duty to keep talking.

“I think that no one lives for 100 years,” he said. “I think I should do what I should do.”

Mr. Yam said he didn’t like it when political dialogue was reduced to insults. Too much was at stake, he said.

“Our country is like the body of a person,” he said. “We have a serious disease. But we cannot find a doctor who has an effective cure.”

Mr. Ear, the associate professor, agreed that discourse was essential to Cambodia’s health.

“If political debate gets quieter, democracy, which is already on life-support, will finally have its plug pulled which will flatline it once and for all,” he said.

“Democracy is dead, long live democracy!”

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