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‘Cakeism’ in Cambodia – Asia Times

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Giving a talk at a conference in Prague in early March, when the Covid-19 pandemic was still spoken of in “it-won’t-happen-here” tones in Europe, I was asked by the moderator to give my word of the year. Instead of the expected “coronavirus” or “Covid,” I opted for another c-word: “cakeism.”

It had entered the political lexicon of my home country, Britain, because of our Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s appeal that with Brexit, “we could have our cake and eat it too.” For those unfamiliar with the English saying, it means to seek to have two things at the same time that are mutually incompatible. Put differently, it is to enjoy all the benefits of a particular thing but none of its disadvantages.

But my awareness of “cakeism” was well tuned, after having reported from Cambodia for five years. For the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since 1979, and for Prime Minister Hun Sen, a slight variation of on the theme is their much-trotted-out slogan of “win-win.”

It was first used by Hun Sen in the late 1990s to describe his policy of ending the decades-old civil war, when the last of the Khmer Rouge soldiers finally defected to the government and its army, which granted them peaceful reintegration into society and, for most, the promise of no prosecution for their historic crimes. One analyst described it as “a molehill turned into a mountain.”   

In 2018, Hun Sen unveiled the “Win-Win Monument” in Phnom Penh, which had taken two years to build and cost the taxpayers the equivalent of US$12 million. Another is now being built in Koh Kong province.

But win-win has taken on a far more troubling notion in recent times. When, in 2017, the ruling CPP moved to dissolve by force its only real challenger, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, it claimed that the CNRP and its supporters were plotting a coup with American backing. Therefore, the ruling party said, for the sake of national security the opposition party had to be removed.

Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s leader, was arrested for treason in September 2017, a charge the courts still haven’t prosecuted, and which Hun Sen said last week could be postponed until 2021 – which he said was out of his hands because of “independence” of the courts and, in the same breath, said he had told Kem Sokha so during their meeting this month.

For Hun Sen, putting an end to the CNRP was also a “win-win” moment. Indeed, after winning all 125 seats in parliament at the 2018 general election, because the CNRP wasn’t on the ballot, the CPP was happy to enjoy all the benefits of its own political coup. Yet it has never accepted that its actions came with disadvantages.

When the European Union threatened to remove Cambodia from one of the bloc’s preferential trade schemes, the ruling party said it was an attack on Cambodian sovereignty (not noting that, by trying to tell the EU what to do, the Cambodian government was itself trying to influence EU sovereignty).

And when the EU decided in February to suspend some of Cambodia’s trade privileges, the CPP rallied behind the claim that the EU was harming the livelihoods of Cambodia’s poor. Indeed, the CPP has grown used to pleading poverty abroad but supremacy at home.

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