Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal

Rights groups say Cambodian veteran strongman Hun Sen maintains his iron grip on the country through a mix of violence, politically motivated prosecutions and corruption. (AFP)
Rights groups say Cambodian veteran strongman Hun Sen maintains his iron grip on the country through a mix of violence, politically motivated prosecutions and corruption. (AFP)
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Updated 21 October 2021

Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal

Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal
  • Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family, while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line, says Australian FM Gareth Evans, one of the architects of the peace deal

PHNOM PENH: Three decades after a landmark agreement ended years of bloody violence in Cambodia, its strongman ruler has crushed all opposition and is eyeing dynastic succession, shattering hopes for a democratic future.
The Paris Peace Agreements, signed on October 23, 1991, brought an end to nearly two decades of savage slaughter that began with the Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power in 1975.
The genocidal regime wiped out up to two million Cambodians through murder, starvation and overwork, before a Vietnamese invasion toppled the communist Khmer Rouge but triggered a civil war.
The Paris accords paved the way for Cambodia’s first democratic election in 1993 and effectively brought the Cold War in Asia to an end.
Aid from the West flowed and Cambodia became the poster child for post-conflict transition to democracy.
But the gains were short-lived and Premier Hun Sen, now in his fourth decade in power, has led a sustained crackdown on dissent.
“We did a great job on bringing peace, but blew it on democracy and human rights,” said former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, one of the architects of the peace deal.

Evans said it was a mistake to agree to Hun Sen’s demands for a power-sharing arrangement after the 1993 election.
“Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family... while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line,” he said.
Rights groups say the veteran strongman maintains his iron grip on the country through a mix of violence, politically motivated prosecutions and corruption.
Exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy said the international community lacked the will in 1993 to stand up to Hun Sen, who had been installed as ruler by the Vietnamese in 1985.
“The West had a tendency to wait and see and look for imagined gradual improvements in governance. That clearly did not work,” he told AFP.
“Cambodian politicians also have to accept some blame. Too many found it easier to accept a quiet but lucrative life in government than to say what they really thought.”
Human Rights Watch said that under Hun Sen, “even the patina of democracy and basic rights” has collapsed in recent years.
In 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
And since the 2018 election — in which Hun Sen’s party won every seat in parliament — the authorities have arrested scores of former opposition members and rights campaigners.
Around 150 opposition figures and activists are facing a mass trial for treason and incitement charges, while the main opposition leader Kem Sokha is facing a separate treason trial.
Covid-19 has seen more curbs, with over 700 people arrested according to the UN rights body, which has warned that most may not have had a fair trial.
The spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party insisted it was the “will of the people” to have one party in parliament.
“We have peace, we have political stability, it reflects that we correctly implement the principles of democracy, and there is no abuse of human rights either,” Sok Eysan told AFP.

There has been some international censure — the European Union withdrew preferential trade rates last year over rights abuses — but the pressure shows little sign of translating into change.
“The reality is Cambodia has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of China, like Laos next door, and that means Hun Sen has been able to comfortably thumb his nose at any potential economic or political pressure from elsewhere,” Evans said.
Speculation has simmered that the 69-year-old Hun Sen is grooming his eldest son Hun Manet — a four-star general educated in Britain and the United States — to take over the leadership one day.
But in March, the veteran ruler said he would no longer set a date for his retirement, and activists have little hope that a change in leadership will bring a new direction.
“In Cambodia, we don’t have real democracy,” Batt Raksmey told AFP.
Her campaigner husband was jailed in May for allegedly inciting unrest after he raised environmental concerns about a lake on the edge of Phnom Penh.
“People have no freedom to speak their opinion,” she said. “When they speak out and criticize the government, they are arrested.”


World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
Updated 27 November 2021

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

BRUSSELS: Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world raced Friday to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fueled relentless waves of infection on nearly every continent.
A World Health Organization panel named the variant “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.
“It seems to spread rapidly,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”
Omicron's actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
In response to the variant's discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.
The White House said the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. Biden said that means “no travel” to or from the designated countries except for returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents who test negative.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.
“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
Omicron has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as in southern Africa.
There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.
Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.
Fears of more pandemic-induced economic turmoil caused stocks to tumble in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index closed down 2.3%, its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged about 13%.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. Members of the 27-nation EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.
Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel restrictions Friday, some within hours of learning of the variant. Asked why the U.S. was waiting until Monday, Biden said only: "Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team.’’
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
She warned that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months."
“It’s a suspicious variant," said Frank Vandenbroucke, health minister in Belgium, which became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”
Omicron has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious disease expert. Although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, "we don’t know that for sure right now,” he told CNN.
Speaking to reporters outside a bookstore on Nantucket Island, where he was spending the holiday weekend, Biden said the new variant was "a great concern” that “should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations."
He called anew for unvaccinated Americans to get their widely available doses and for governments to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines so they can be more rapidly manufactured around the world.
Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travelers' exact vaccination status.
After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also isolated and tested.
“It’s ridiculous. If we didn’t catch the dreaded bug before, we're catching it now,” said passenger Francesca de’ Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.
Some experts said the variant's emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders "to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses.”
The new variant added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing COVID-19 could be reversed.
“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have “not yielded a meaningful outcome.”
The U.S. restrictions will apply to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The White House suggested the restrictions will mirror an earlier pandemic policy that banned entry of any foreigners who had traveled over the previous two weeks in the designated regions.
The U.K. banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and announced that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
Canada banned the entry of all foreigners who have traveled to southern Africa in the last two weeks.
The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and take three COVID-19 tests during that time. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals. Russia announced travel restrictions effective Sunday.

 


Ethiopia’s Abiy at the battlefront vows to ‘bury the enemy’, UN sounds alarm on hunger

In this image made from undated released by the PM of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed is seen dressed in military uniform speaking to a television camera at an unidentified location in Ethiopia. (AP)
In this image made from undated released by the PM of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed is seen dressed in military uniform speaking to a television camera at an unidentified location in Ethiopia. (AP)
Updated 27 November 2021

Ethiopia’s Abiy at the battlefront vows to ‘bury the enemy’, UN sounds alarm on hunger

In this image made from undated released by the PM of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed is seen dressed in military uniform speaking to a television camera at an unidentified location in Ethiopia. (AP)
  • The war has exacted a huge humanitarian toll, with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) saying Friday that the number of people requiring food aid in the country’s north had surged to more than nine million

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed vowed Friday to “bury the enemy” in his first message from the battlefront according to state media, as the UN warned the year-long conflict has left millions short of food.
As Tigrayan rebels report major territorial gains, claiming this week to have seized a town just 220 kilometers (135 miles) from Addis Ababa, international alarm over the escalating conflict has deepened, with foreign countries urging their citizens to leave.
State media reported Wednesday that Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military, had arrived at the front line to lead a counter-offensive against the rebels, handing regular duties to his deputy.
In an interview shown Friday on the state-affiliated Oromia Broadcasting Corporation channel, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner said he was certain of achieving victory against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group.
“Until we bury the enemy... until Ethiopia’s independence is confirmed, we won’t reverse course. What we want is to see an Ethiopia that stands while we die,” he said.
He added that the military had secured control of Kassagita and planned to recapture Chifra district and Burka town in Afar region, which neighbors Tigray, the TPLF’s stronghold.
“The enemy doesn’t have the standing to compete with us, we will win,” he said.
The interview was broadcast hours after the government announced new rules Thursday against sharing information on battlefield outcomes that was not published by official channels, a move that could bring sanctions against journalists.

The war has exacted a huge humanitarian toll, with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) saying Friday that the number of people requiring food aid in the country’s north had surged to more than nine million.
Hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine as aid workers struggle to deliver urgently-needed supplies to desperate populations in Tigray, Amhara and Afar.
The WFP said the situation had sharply deteriorated in recent months, with an estimated 9.4 million people facing hunger “as a direct result of ongoing conflict,” compared with around seven million in September.
“Amhara region — the frontlines of the conflict in Ethiopia — has seen the largest jump in numbers with 3.7 million people now in urgent need of humanitarian aid,” WFP said.
“Of the people across northern Ethiopia in need of assistance, more than 80 percent (7.8 million) of them are behind battle lines.”
This week, aid workers were able to distribute food in the Amhara towns of Dessie and Kombolcha for the first time since they were captured by the TPLF nearly a month ago, the WFP said, adding that it was only granted access to its warehouses last week.
The risk of malnutrition has also increased across the three regions, with screening data showing rates between 16 and 28 percent for children, it said.
“Even more alarmingly, up to 50 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Amhara and Tigray were also found to be malnourished.”
Fighting has also damaged more than 500 health facilities in Amhara, the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA said late Thursday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “expressed grave concern about worrying signs of military escalation” in Ethiopia during a telephone conversation with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Friday.
He also “emphasised the need to urgently move to negotiations” on the conflict, according to a statement from the State Department.

As the war has dragged on, the government has stepped up its use of air power against the TPLF — one of the areas where it enjoys a military advantage.
On Friday the TPLF and a hospital official reported two air strikes in Tigray’s capital Mekele.
Dr. Hayelom Kebede, research director at Mekele’s Ayder Referral Hospital, told AFP the bombings occurred at 9 am (0600 GMT) and 12:30 pm, with the first one destroying two homes.
“Still waiting for the casualty report,” he said.
Sources told AFP the first strike hit close to the house of a rebel commander and near a hill with an anti-aircraft machine gun.
Much of the conflict-affected zone is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify.
Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said she had “no information” about any drone strikes in Mekele, which was recaptured by the rebels in June before they expanded into Amhara and Afar.
The war erupted in early November 2020 when Abiy deployed troops into Tigray, bringing to a head a long-simmering row with the TPLF, the region’s ruling party.


Sri Lanka focuses on economic diplomacy after the pandemic

Sri Lanka focuses on economic diplomacy after the pandemic
Updated 27 November 2021

Sri Lanka focuses on economic diplomacy after the pandemic

Sri Lanka focuses on economic diplomacy after the pandemic
  • The country’s economy has suffered the worst contraction in its post-independence history in the last two years

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka is focusing on economic diplomacy, the new foreign minister has said in an interview with Arab News, as the country’s economy needs to rebound after two years of losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 caused the worst contraction in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, as annual growth slid from 3.1 percent in 2018–19 to -3.6 percent in 2020. Revenue from tourism — one of the country’s main economic sectors — dropped by $3 billion over the first eight months of 2021, compared with the same period in 2018.
While the Sri Lankan economy is slowly picking up, economic diplomacy is going to be a key factor in its foreign policy.
“The country is returning to normalcy after the pandemic, we are reopening schools and foreign tourists have started coming to Sri Lanka. We are asking our foreign missions to focus on economic diplomacy to dwell on investments, trade and tourism,” Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris said in the interview earlier this week.
The minister, who took office three months ago, said Colombo does not have “exclusive relations with any particular country,” but expressed gratitude to Saudi Arabia for investing $1 billion in its infrastructure.
“We are thankful to Saudi Arabia for being a regular contributor to various infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka,” he said. “The projects included construction of the Epilepsy Hospital, National Trauma Center, Kinniya bridge — the longest bridge in the island — and the construction of roads, tanks and highways.”
Saudi Arabia has also been one of the key sources of remittance inflows from Sri Lankan expats.
“The Middle East is the home for 1.5 million migrant workers, which includes the largest concentration in the Kingdom,” Peiris said.
The UK Foreign Office said this week that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has deteriorated in the first half of 2021, with an increased use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the minister said it was indeed time to amend the 42-year-old law.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act allows the detention of suspects for up to 18 months without charges. It also gives the Minister of Defense the power to restrict freedom of association and expression without the possibility of appeal.
“Since there is no provision to repeal this act, the parliament will consider amending some clauses to keep abreast of changes that have taken place in the recent times,” Peiris said. He said that if there have been rights violations, citizens are free to file their cases with the Supreme Court.
“We have fundamental rights jurisdiction in our Supreme Court,” he said. “Rule of law is well exercised and people go to courts whenever they feel that their rights are infringed.”


Italy, France deepen strategic ties as Merkel’s exit tests Europe

Italy, France deepen strategic ties as Merkel’s exit tests Europe
Updated 26 November 2021

Italy, France deepen strategic ties as Merkel’s exit tests Europe

Italy, France deepen strategic ties as Merkel’s exit tests Europe
  • Draghi: France and Italy are further consolidating our diplomatic, commercial, political and cultural ties
  • The new Berlin administration is expected to be more inward looking

ROME: Italy and France signed a treaty on Friday to strengthen bilateral ties and reinforce their coordination within Europe, at a time when EU diplomacy is being tested by the departure of Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron put their names to the new pact in Rome’s Quirinale Palace. Afterwards, twin formations of planes trailing smoke in the colors of the two nations, sped through a stormy sky.
“The treaty ... marks an historic moment in relations between our two countries. France and Italy are further consolidating our diplomatic, commercial, political and cultural ties,” Draghi told reporters.
The signing ceremony came days after a new coalition pact was agreed in Germany, ending 16 years of rule by Merkel, who was the undisputed leader of Europe and forged especially close ties with successive
French leaders.
The new Berlin administration is expected to be more inward looking, especially at the start of its mandate, and both Paris and Rome are keen to deepen relations in a period clouded by economic uncertainty, the pandemic, a more assertive Russia, a rising China and a more disengaged US.
Macron said the Quirinale Treaty, named for the Roman residence of the Italian president, did not challenge French relations with Germany, but was complementary and aimed at boosting all of Europe.
Among the goals laid out in the 15-page document was a pledge to reinforce military connections, even at an industrial level, and work in tandem to enhance Europe’s defense capabilities.
“The objective we are following ... is to have a stronger and more sovereign Europe ... A Europe that knows how to protect its borders and defend itself,” Macron said.
The treaty was originally envisaged in 2017, but negotiations ground to a halt in 2018 when a populist government took office in Rome and clashed repeatedly with Macron over immigration.
There has been a renaissance this year following the appointment of Draghi to lead an Italian unity government, and the two men have met repeatedly in recent months, working closely on areas that were previous flashpoints, such as efforts to end years of conflict in Libya.
The Quirinale Treaty, loosely modelled on a 1963 Franco-German pact, will lead to Paris and Rome seeking common ground ahead of EU summits, just as France already coordinates key European policy moves with Germany.
Draghi said the two nations would launch “new forms of cooperation” in energy, technology, research and innovation. He added that at least once every quarter, an Italian minister would attend a French Cabinet meeting, and vice versa.
France and Italy also committed to working together in the space sector, and would facilitate “reciprocal investment” and define “common strategies in international markets.”
French companies have invested heavily in Italy in recent years, but Italian politicians have accused Paris of being less forthcoming when Italian businesses seek cross-border deals. Earlier this year, state-owned shipmaker Fincantieri’s bid to take over its French peer Chantiers de l’Atlantique collapsed, thwarted by EU competition issues.
Italian officials suspected Paris actively sought to undermine the deal behind the scenes.


UK bans Hamas in its entirety as ‘terrorist group’

Palestinian students supporting the Hamas movement take part in an election campaign near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP/File Photo)
Palestinian students supporting the Hamas movement take part in an election campaign near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 26 November 2021

UK bans Hamas in its entirety as ‘terrorist group’

Palestinian students supporting the Hamas movement take part in an election campaign near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP/File Photo)

LONDON: Britain on Friday designated all of Hamas an “Islamist terrorist group,” warning that its members and those who support the group could face stiff jail terms.

The Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the group that rules the Gaza Strip, has been banned in Britain since 2001 but the interior ministry extended the ban to its political entities.

London said last week it was no longer possible to make a distinction, assessing that Hamas “commits, participates in, prepares for and promotes and encourages terrorism.”

“The Islamist terrorist group Hamas has today become a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK in its entirety following parliament's approval,” the Home Office said.

“This means that members of Hamas or those who invite support for the group could be jailed for up to 14 years.”

Israel has welcomed the move, which follows similar action by the United States and the European Union.

But Hamas itself has called the UK move “a crime against our Palestinian people and all their history of struggle.”