Country Profile: Cambodia


Monks and sightseers beside the Tonle Sap river © Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures

It can be hard to escape the sound of jackhammers in Phnom Penh. From daybreak, the traditional sounds of the capital – the yodelling of street vendors and honking of tuk-tuks – now seem accompanied by the ubiquitous grind and screech of building sites. Indeed, a record boom has seen investment in Cambodia’s construction sector treble over the past five years, with a total of more than $7 billion worth of projects approved in 2016. Sprawling malls, condos and entertainment complexes now tower over the low-rise city – monuments to Cambodia’s entry into the world of global capitalism, with all its attendant consumerist cultures and trends.

For a country which was only 20 years earlier clawing its way back to a fragile peace after more than a decade of genocide and civil war, it may be tempting to view these countless new developments as symbols of progress. But, like their hastily laid foundations, the façade of modernization in Cambodia is shaky. Despite raising overall living standards and ushering in economic growth that has seen it branded an Asian ‘tiger economy’, three decades of rule by Prime Minister Hun Sen have done little to deliver social, economic or political equity for the majority of Cambodians.

Behind the scaffolding of construction sites, an estimated 300,000 workers – mostly internal migrants from the provinces, and many of them children – toil for around $7 a day in precarious conditions that have been compared to forced labour. Similarly, the million employees in the garment sector – the other backbone of the country’s economy – are drawn to the capital’s numerous factories on fickle short-term contracts for as little as $4 per day. Cambodia’s new-found wealth is, by contrast, sequestered in the hands of the country’s ruling elite – an indivisible mesh of political, business and military.

Like the cash-flow, political power has remained concentrated. Officially a parliamentary democracy with regular elections, the country has since 1998 been ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Hun Sen, a former commander of the Khmer Rouge (the regime that perpetrated the genocide of 1975-79). Opposition parties are licensed and there is a sanctioned space for political dissent and civil society. But that space has always been carefully policed by the CPP and is narrowing significantly.

The CPP’s main rival is the Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose charismatic leader Sam Rainsy last year found himself in exile for the third time in a decade. Other opposition members of parliament have been subject to beatings, harassment and arbitrary arrest with regularity. The activities of NGOs and civil society have meanwhile come under greater attack, as with the recent detention of five high-profile human rights defenders on charges Human Rights Watch describes as ‘farcical’.

Less visible still are all those Cambodians (an estimated 800,000 since 2000) who have faced forcible eviction and destitution as a result of an escalating policy of land-grabs meted out by government members, security forces and affiliated businesses. Such is the scale of land-grabbing in Cambodia that a dossier of cases has been submitted to the International Criminal Court, claiming that the violations by the country’s ruling elite amount to crimes against humanity.

Campaign groups like Global Witness have warned that such conditions should be a red flag to foreign investors in Cambodia – the biggest of which is China, whose company names brand the majority of construction developments and in whose geopolitical orbit Cambodia is becoming more firmly entrenched. China is unlikely to be ruffled, but the country’s questionable course of development may yet give its long-standing Western donors and biggest trading partners (the UK and US) pause for thought.

Rekindling fears: right-wing violence against migrants is back in Greece


Syrian activists gather at an anti-fascism demonastration in Athens in August 2016 © Zoe Holman

There is little to envy in the current lot of Greece’s some 60,000 refugees and migrants. Many have found themselves destitute, living homeless or in elementary, overcrowded conditions at makeshift and official camps (on the islands alone, an estimated 13,000 people live in facilities designed to accommodate less than 8,000).

But the reality of dispossession has not stopped far-right groups from successfully stoking popular resentment and animosity – as manifest in recent reports of violence toward refugees and their supporters around the country.

In August, one of Athens’ most prominent autonomously-run migrant squats, ‘Notara 26’, was attacked with Molotovs and gas bombs, endangering more than 100 lives and causing serious structural damage. The incident was one in a chain of attacks against refugee squats and solidarity spaces that activists attribute to reactionary xenophobia stemming from the ongoing crisis and stoked by Greece’s mainstream media and politics.

Notara 26 squat after a bomb attack

Notara 26

These sentiments reverberated last month as journalists reported being attacked by members of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party while covering an anti-refugee protest on the island of Chios, where more than 3,500 migrants are currently stranded. The demonstration was apparently ‘community organized’, but journalists noted the failure of police to intercept Golden Dawn elements or arrest violent perpetrators already known to authorities. Similar reports flowed from a demonstration the same fortnight in the town hosting Lesvos’ biggest refugee camp, Moria, where locals turned out bearing slogans like ‘no more burden on Moria’ and ‘put them back on the boats’.

‘This was supposed to be locals protesting and reacting to conditions, but in fact there were many fascist Greek flags, which have now just become a symbol for Golden Dawn,’ says Efi Latsoudi, an award-winning refugee activist based on Lesvos since 2001. ‘When some members starting kicking and shouting at refugee activists, the police just stood by and watched.’

Golden Dawn made some in-roads into Lesvos following the influx of arrivals in 2015 (particularly during the September elections), Latsoudi says that the incident suggests a troubling new dynamic on the island. ‘We didn’t have this last year. What far-right groups created on Chios is happening here now,’ she explains, suggesting that protests like that at Moria are orchestrated and promoted by neo-fascist groups like Golden Dawn. ‘They are trying to take advantage of circumstances to become more powerful and using the refugees and Islamophobia is easy to do. The fear of locals means that they can all make political profit from the situation.’

Hostility indicates the incendiary potential of a seemingly interminable migration crisis

While not reflecting majority opinion, such displays of hostility do indicate the incendiary potential of a protracted and seemingly interminable crisis. ‘The public response to refugees has generally been positive, but it is very easy to influence people,’ Latsoudi says. ‘There is a human element in people, but that can start thinning out with the spreading of fear and false news. We can’t under-estimate the danger of this – it’s not only about votes, it’s about fascism growing in society into something we cannot control.’

Those who have arrived in Lesvos appear equally anxious about a pending extremism, with many migrants reporting having witnessed either threats or actual instances of violence. ‘It is very disturbing,’ says one 32-year-old staying in Moria camp, who arrived in Greece in 2015. ‘If local people don’t like refugees, then it will be a big, big problem.’

A view from a Notara 26 solidarity demonstration in Athens

Zoe Holman

The violence in recent months has taken place against the backdrop of the stalling trial in Athens of more than 60 Golden Dawn members on charges of running a criminal organization. The proceedings opened April 2015 but resumed again, in full, last month after numerous obstructions and lengthy adjournments. As well as acts of criminal violence by Golden Dawn from 2012, the trial will begin to reveal elements of the Greek state’s collusion with the party (which still has 17 MPs). But despite this seemingly official justice, anti-extremism campaigners say that the apparent neglect, some even say complicity, by some Greek authorities has enabled Golden Dawn’s activities to continue.

‘It's long known that Greek police, especially in Athens, has a close relationship with Golden Dawn,’ explains a Greek refugee activist who wished to remain nameless. ‘I have experienced first-hand police being unnecessarily aggressive towards refugees, saying racist things, refusing to report incidents in camps unless the refugees filing the complaint (for a fight or rape) were willing to pay the cop a bribe. Or while we were in [Idomeni refugee camp], we were constantly harassed and intimidated by the authorities for working with the refugees.”

Related photo gallery: Remembering the Idomeni refugees

However, it is also widely acknowledged that anti-refugee sentiments are not solely the making of neo-fascists like Golden Dawn. Rather, a complex of legitimate local grievances, political inertia and clashing ideologies appears to be behind the simmering violence.

‘Even before the refugee flow increased there were attacks in Athens, with supporters of Golden Dawn mainly at the forefront, claiming that they were making town cleaner and safer, and playing up on the resentment of people in certain areas with many undocumented immigrants,’ says the activist, drawing a comparison with the position of Brexit supporters in the UK.

A complex of local grievances, political inertia and clashing ideologies appears to be behind the simmering violence

‘On one hand, there's the fascist groups targeting things such as squats and donation warehouses (often as a reaction to the anarchist community associated to those places), but it has also been locals. The islands in particular have been quite vocal against the refugees—there is compassion fatigue, racism and resentment at the drop in tourism… while us Greeks are still reeling from the financial crisis.’

In this context, refugee supporters say a more concerted effort is needed by Greek authorities to engage local communities and compensate for losses in income flowing from the refugee crisis, especially in areas most affected like Lesvos.

Asylum seeking children play football at Skaramangas refugee camp, Athens.

Zoe Holman

Addressing last month’s UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York, Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras warned that the ramifications of the biggest refugee crisis since 1945 were not limited to his country.

‘If we fail to support this, the political repercussions will be felt not only in Greece, but everywhere,’ he cautioned. ‘We will give space to nationalistic, xenophobic forces to show their face for the first time since World War II.’

Indeed, noting similar ideological, anti-refugee trends across Europe, campaigners have pointed beyond Greece to the culpability of EU and global political actors in the present impasse.

‘All over Europe racist violence has erupted in the last two years. This isn't a “refugee crisis”, but a self-inflicted humanitarian crisis created by EU politics,’ says Alex [pseudonym] from the Germany-based grass-roots solidarity and research collective, Refugee Support, who points to similar recent attacks on refugees in Germany and France.

‘The EU has forced migrants and refugees with their isolation policies to take deathly routes to Europe in order to flee war, hunger and torture… By closing the borders inside the EU and absolutely failing at their relocation programs, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants are caught in limbo in Greece, left on the streets in an extremely vulnerable position.’

The mayor of Lesvos was not available to comment on any measures being taken to protect refugees or intercept extremism.

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