Friday, July 29, 2016

Cambodia, Kem Ley, and Murder & Mourning in the Cell-Phone Age

I have a new post up at Asia Times that ventures beyond my usual bailiwick.  It’s about Cambodia, and it’s keyed on the murder of Dr. Kem Ley, which created an uproar in Cambodian civil society: Cambodian PM Hun Sen Paints a bull’s-eye on his own back.

I’m interested in Cambodia because of its role as pro-China spoiler in ASEAN.  The U.S. and Japan would, I think, like to see supremo Hun Sen go away pronto and not lord it over Cambodia for another decade plus, which is his stated ambition.

Vietnamese attitudes are perhaps more ambivalent.  Hun Sen came to power on the back of the Vietnamese army that expelled the Khmer Rouge and, before Hun Sen lurched China-ward in 2012, he was seen as a useful bulwark against the amazingly deep anti-Vietnamese trend in Cambodian society and politics.

However, I see that Carlyle Thayer, who is something of a leading indicator of Vietnamese opinion, had delivered some dark mutterings on the occasion of the recent unpleasantness at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that maybe it was time for Hun Sen to sleep with the fishes:

“The current rift shows that Cambodia is the odd country out, [interested] in pursuing the narrow interests of the Hun Sen regime at the expense of the common interests of the littoral and maritime states,” Thayer said.

Protip: When you become the “XX regime” don’t expect good things.

If there’s going to be a color revolution that brings Cambodia into the ranks of the pro-Western China containment alliance (or at least quasi-adversarial frontline state like Burma), Dr. Kem Ley probably would have played a key role…if he hadn’t been shot to death on July 10 in Phnom Penh.

Dr. Ley presented himself as an “analyzer” and “researcher” not an “activist” or “politician”.  He did preside over the founding of a grass roots independent political party but immediately distanced himself from its operations.  

I suspect Ley was trying to “color revolution between the lines” as I put it in my AT article, claim the “safe space” of “apolitical civil society” and gain the protection of Cambodian laws and international opinion as much as possible while enabling the formation of a popular force.

It appears not to have worked, as his murder is widely seen as a political assassination orchestrated by the Hun Sen government.

The whole NGO model of virtuous subversion is taking a hit around the world, with anti-NGO laws getting passed in China, India, Russia, Israel and I expect some other venues.

That’s a rebuke, I think, to Hillary Clinton and Anne-Marie Slaughter and their idea of “smart power”.  Weaponizing NGOs as political instruments was a clever way to stress targeted regimes without accountability and, guess what, walk away from compromised assets without accountability.

That’s a shame, because NGOs were playing major and positive roles in shaky societies, particularly post-conflict and post-socialist nations.  My closest experience is Mongolia which, post-democracy, looked like it had been hit like a truck.  NGOs poured in to reconstruct the society and did a lot of good things, along with bringing along a considerable amount of baggage, especially in the Christian prostelyzation line.  Cambodia, needing all the help it can get to rebuild its human capital after the devastation of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime, has been a major focus of NGO attentions.

The PRC, of course, has not signed on to have its society remade by Western do-gooders, and relationships with NGOs have become increasingly fraught, for good reason.

An interesting report by Edward Wong in the New York Times caught up with Peter Dahlin, the head of a legal rights NGO whose detention by the PRC was the subject of much high-profile handwringing in the Western press.

He was released and deported by the PRC and ended up in Thailand.  He told Wong:

[His interrogators] showed him a document about the organization he had started in China to promote access to legal services, complete with descriptions of employees, associates and grant recipients. But it was not written by the officers. It appeared to have been prepared by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is largely funded by the United States Congress.

The internal report laid out how Mr. Dahlin’s small organization had received financing from the nonprofit for the last five years, and it discussed his program in detail. It seemed to have been meant for circulation only among the nonprofit’s top directors.

“I realized it must have come straight from N.E.D. itself somehow,” Mr. Dahlin said in an interview, adding that he had never seen the document before.

Don’t recall the US government or the NED speaking up for Dahlin while he was incarcerated.  The Swedish government was called upon to do the heavy diplomatic lifting.

Maybe that's because the NED is seen as an instrument of US destabilization and regime change ambitions layered on top of democracy promotion and the kiss of death for NGOs trying to operate beyond US protection in hostile states.

The most generous interpretation of Mr. Dahlin’s plight is that he had no idea that the NED was funding his organization (which had swelled to “15-20” mostly part-time employees and kept the equivalent of US$26,000 in cash in a safe) through deniable cutouts, or he was simply too polite to ask.

To sum up, if you’re doing NGO work that has a whiff of political significance in the PRC, you’ve got a bullseye on your back, thanks to the US government’s propensity for meddling.

Thanks, Hillary.

I don’t know if Dr. Ley was involved, wittingly or unwittingly, in US-government related NGO shenanigans.  But he was an inhabitant of NGO-land, and his work drew from, complemented, and perhaps informed the NGO engagement with Cambodia.  

In particular, I’m thinking of this Asia Society report, Democracy in Cambodia--2014, whose recommendations essentially dovetail with Ley’s initiative to set up a grass roots political movement that, while bringing the goodness of true representative government to Cambodia’s people, would be beyond the controlling and intimidating reach of the Hun Sen government and state-run media.

The NGO that might have created fatal difficulties for Dr. Ley was Global Witness, a George Soros operation that attacks the illicit resource exploitation that underpins less-than-democratic regimes.  Their most famous cause is blood diamonds, but they also do jade, tropical hardwoods, copper, etc.

In early July Global Witness strayed somewhat from their core brief to deliver an expose of the vast business holdings of the Hun Sen family in Cambodia, titled Hostile Takeover.  Global Witness declared that the report an exercise in “data journalism”, its conclusions derived from combing publicly available Cambodian corporate records.  This presentation parallels the spiked Bloomberg investigation into Xi Jinping’s family holdings using records in Hong Kong, something that the PRC, now Cambodia’s ally, might have shared with Hun Sen.

I’m a touch skeptical about these claims and wonder if these heroic exercises in financial forensics are backfilling to cover up a dossier dump and protect local informants.  Never know, I guess.  

However, I did think it rather rash of Global Witness to announce that it had relied on information from “confidential sources” to fill out its report, especially in the matter of Hun Sen’s black sheep nephew Hun To, an alleged drug dealer.

Anyway, Kem Ley appeared on VOA and RFA and, I’m assuming, a variety of Khmer outlets to discuss the Global Witness report.  He distanced himself from any knowledge of the intentions and objectives of the authors, while expressing appreciation for the report and its accuracy.

Actually, Global Witness report looks like, as I characterized it in Asia Times, “a regime change hitpiece” intended to weaken Hun Sen politically and provide a justification for a cutoff of foreign investment and government and and NGO funding to the Cambodian government, and Hun Sen might have decided to send a murderous, intimidating signal to local activists in response.

A few days later, on July 10, after being tracked for a couple days by some goons with walkie-talkies, Ley was shot to death at his favorite coffee spot in Phnom Penh.

I found the media willing to impute the killing to Hun Sen, which is after all pretty plausible, though it’s backfired politically and the killing might have been some rogue operation not ordered by Hun Sen.  But leaving that aside, journos are apparently loath to connect the dots between the Global Witness report and Ley’s death.

It might not be correct to speculate that Ley had a hand in the preparation of the report, but the idea that it might have been a factor in Ley’s death is apparently one of those questions that didn’t deserve raising.

Circumspect journalism?  Unwillingness to embarrass Big George and one of his flagship benefactions by implying it cavalierly made a run at Hun Sen from the safety of London while giving insufficient mind to possibility of local retaliation?  Queasiness at highlighting potential synergies between NGO work and domestic political agendas?

Anyway, Dr. Ley was murdered, and the intensity of the public furor surrounding his death illustrates the vitality of social and political model he was advancing, in which an increasingly informed and critical public employ their own social media tools to slip beyond the grasp of an old-school strongman.

The cellphoning and social-media-ing began with Dr. Ley’s murder.  Graphic photos of his body popped up on social media, supporters and sympathizers flocked to the cafĂ©/gas station to gape, grieve, rage, and try to protect the crime scene against government interference.  The affair quickly assumed the form of a protest, as the crowd refused to let Ley’s body be loaded into a vehicle belonging to an ambulance service controlled by Hun Sen’s wife.  Instead, it was placed into an SUV and escorted by Buddhist monks to the Wat Chas pagoda.

Shortly after the murder

A crowd gathers outside the cafe after news of the shooting spreads

Transporting Dr. Ley's body to Wat Chas pagoda after his murder
A wealth of footage immediately made its way onto social media concerning Ley's murder and other events of July 10, showing the ambulance being sent off and the remarkably efficient organization of an ad hoc funeral procession complete with memorial pictures.

Dr. Ley lay in state for more than a week at the pagoda, to the undisguised anxiety of the Cambodia government.  

After negotiations with the government to keep politics out of the event and control the route, huge crowds lined the streets of Phnom Penh as a parade transported his body, draped in a Cambodian flag and enclosed in a glass coffin, to the burial ground in his own province on July 26. 

Dr. Ley's body is loaded onto a mortuary car for the funeral procession
The funeral procession through Phnom Penh to the burial ground

Government TV gave the procession a couple minutes on the news, but social media has hours of footage.


Ley's death provides an interesting insight into Buddhist funerary practices, and hints that Cambodia’s Buddhists are pulling themselves together after the devastation of the Khmer Rouge years and starting to claim a central social and political role, something their Therevada Buddhist colleagues in Thailand and Burma assert with considerable ferocity.

As to the US position on this, the State Department issued a statement of condolence and called on the Cambodian government to conduct a full investigation.  The US Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Tom Malinowski, appeared at the viewing of Ley’s body and provided a sentiment for the guest book.  His trip was announced on July 10, so it’s plausible that it was scheduled after news of Ley’s death was received.

Tom Malinowski pays his condolences

Assistant Secretary of State Malinowski signs the condolence book
Malinowski's message

As I discuss in Asia Times, the outpouring of popular indignation surrounding Ley’s death might accelerate any plans the US might have for getting Hun Sen out of the president’s chair.  Hun Sen’s main political rival, Sam Rainsy, is a popular but rather problematic pol whose political platform is based on virulent anti-Vietnam sentiment.  That’s not exactly flavor of the month in Washington and Japan, who see Vietnam as a valued asset in the PRC-containment network.

But a burgeoning social and political resistance movement kickstarted by Ley’s death might change US calculations.  As I wrote at AT, “it looks like Hun Sen painted a bull’s eye on his own back.  But it will take a year or two to find out if his opponents can hit the mark.”

Monday, July 25, 2016

Trumputin! And the Leak(s)

Opportunistic foreign intervention into domestic democratic processes: it happens.

I’m reading Sterling Seagrave’s epic account of the Philippines under Marcos, The Marcos Dynasty, and just happen to be at the part where Edward Lansdale and the CIA are painstakingly molding Ramon Magsaysay into the magnificent vessel that will contain American aspirations in the Philippines.  Lansdale did everything but tie Magsaysay’s shoes.  Then Magsaysay died in a plane crash and it was time for rinse-and-repeat with Ferdinand Marcos.

Democracies, for all their virtues, are especially vulnerable to manipulation during election season, when pols need money, good press, and, sometimes impunity.  You don’t get those quadrennial opportunities when wrassling with a dictator-for-life. I suspect that’s one reason why the United States, George Soros, et. al. are so keen on promoting democracy overseas.  The process creates an attractive portfolio of weak, venal, and competing clients.

Tempting to exploit that.  Especially for Putin since it’s been bruited about that his bete noire, cookie merchant Victoria Nuland, will be running the State Department if Clinton wins the presidency.

So I’m not averse to the theory that Vladimir Putin is behind the Wikileaks DNC leak.

Putin probably doesn’t consider himself the first offender when it comes to leaking embarrassing and destabilizing info.

He believes that the Panama Papers dump—sluiced by a noble anonymous hacker into that responsible Western whistleblowing conduit, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, for loving curation by mainstream journos, instead of transomed into the hands of that irresponsible and oh-so-interesting gotta-dump-it-all Wikileaks anti-American cowboy channel—was part of an effort to target him.

I think Panama Papers was a US-orchestrated inflection point in the American campaign to destroy international bank secrecy, but whatever.  Plenty of anti-Putin hay was made out of the leak.

More to the point is this report on statements by Senator Bob Corker via Radio Free Europe, natch!

A senior U.S. lawmaker says revelations about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wealth will be “destabilizing” to his rule as the Russian population becomes increasingly aware of them.

U.S. Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Voice Of America on February 1 that the Russian people "are beginning to realize they have a leader that amassed tremendous personal wealth."

Corker said that revelation was "going to create some additional instability in Russia."
Corker’s remarks come in the midst of a diplomatic dispute between Washington and Moscow over a BBC interview given last week by Adam Szubin, the U.S. Treasury's acting secretary for terrorism and financial crimes.

Szubin told the BBC that Putin was "a picture of corruption," and the White House later said that his remarks reflected the views of the Obama administration about Putin.

The Kremlin reacted angrily to the interview and Earnest’s statement, calling it "outrageous and insulting."

Szubin declined to comment on a 2007 CIA report estimating Putin's wealth at $40 billion.
Both Russian and Western media outlets during the past year have reported previously undisclosed details about the affluent, well-connected lives led by Putin’s two daughters.

Putin's younger daughter, according to Reuters, also has identified herself as a "spouse" of Kirill Shamalov, the son of wealthy Putin associate Nikolai Shamalov.

The couple is thought to have corporate holdings worth about $2 billion.

Treasury’s “terrorism and financial crimes” operation is in the business of hoovering up financial information by any and all means on America’s enemies, especially by compromising the confidentiality of banks doing sanctions-busting business with Iran.  Undoubtedly, it has acquired a nice thick Putin folder thanks to various savory and unsavory ops, and dropping that file is a threat they like to brandish before Putin.

So, no question Putin coulda done DNCleaks and not lost any sleep over it.

But did he?

Maybe we’ll never know.

I’ve written before on the attribution circus: how it’s necessary to sculpt an incriminating dossier even when all you’ve got is ambiguity and circumstantial evidence, because America can’t have foreigners hacking the bejeezus out its servers and then saying, Well, looks like X but…can’t really say for sure.

Instead, we get cybersecurity companies massaging assumptions and cherrypicking data—and downplaying indications that US government hacking tools have been turned against us-- so they can say “we believe” in an impressively scientific manner.  This conclusion is fed to the media machine and eventually emerges from the journalistic nether parts as “X did it.”

Did Putin orchestrate DNCleaks?  Maybe, maybe not.  Coulda been the FSB team.  Coulda been China.  Coulda been Anonymous.  Doesn’t matter too much in my opinion.  The dirt was left lying there for somebody to scoop up.

One thing for sure is that the Clinton campaign is desperate to find a bigger villain to shift the focus away from the DNC’s abysmal security practices and sleazy electioneering revealed by the leak.

Cue Trumputin!

Aside from the possibility that Putin passed the DNC trove to Julian Assange to embarrass and discommode Hillary Clinton, I’m considerably more skeptical about the “Donald Trump is Putin’s agent” story that’s been burning up the Internet.

 Trump doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy that could be run safely and reliably as a foreign agent, either directly or through a cut-out like Paul Manafort.  I suspect the US government has a huge embarrassing file on Manafort thanks to his relationship with Dimitry Firtash, the gas industry fixer who was Russia’s main man in Ukraine, but I’m wondering if unpacking Manafort’s and Trump’s interests in Eastern Europe will reveal more than a lust for oligarch cash and the first-hand perspective that the US/NATO anti-Russia policy orchestrated by Hillary Clinton and Victoria Nuland is a dead-end sh*t show.

To me, the most interesting perspective on the allegations of perfidious Russian involvement in the Trump campaign is the effort to gin up an outsized moral panic around the prospect of the Trump presidency.

He’s a grafter and a scammer who probably expects to lose the election and milk his followers for a few more millions over the next decade via a cheesy post-Fox media/political conglomerate.

Trump, I think, would make a terrible president.  But a terrible president whose best as well as worst impulses would be swiftly neutralized by threats of resignation/insubordination/impeachment/mutiny by the Beltway pros if he really tried to color outside the lines.

I don’t think he’s a fascist with the energy or inclination to seize state power as leader of a racist mass movement with paramilitary power employing riot, murder, insurrection, and genocide to achieve supersized ambitions for national and world mastery.

Is anti-Trump hysteria just part of the electoral race to the bottom, the need to make him appear even less attractive than Hillary?

Or is it…something more?

At this point, everybody pause for a moment and put on their tin-foil hats.

OK…everybody ready?  Good.

Here’s my take on the whole megillah.

The Clinton campaign is in a quiet panic that the notorious e-mail server in Hillary Clinton’s basement got hacked and the 33,000 e-mails were exfiltrated for release at the worst possible moment during the election.  Like maybe during the convention in Philadelphia.

The possibility that the leak is coming has been a staple of right-wing sites for weeks if not months.

If the 33,000 deleted e-mails are just yoga appointments and instructions to florists, it’ll be bad but not fatal.

If they reveal embarrassing political and media canoodling, worse, politically survivable, but electoral poison.

If it turns out that there was official business discussed in some e-mails and Clinton’s lawyers deleted them instead of turning them over to the State Department, I think it’s Hello, President Trump.

If the deleted mails contained classified info, then it’s lights out.  Democrats push her to withdraw from the race soon enough so that nice Mr. Kaine can carry the ticket, and Clinton spends the next few years in court.

Nobody knows what could come out, I think.  If there were some skeletons in the e-mail server, only Hillary Clinton and her closest associates know.  For everybody else, it's pucker up, hope for the best, and expect the worst.

All they know is, any leak of e-mails from the Clinton server is bad.  What to do?  What to do?  What’s the plan?  How does the campaign inoculate against such a potentially devastating development?

How about a major redirect, one that turns any leak into evidence of Putin perfidy?  Aha!

Here’s how I think it works.

First, harden the narrative that Putin is backing Trump.  Time to reach out to prestige media!

Instantaneously and simultaneously, serious chin-stroking erupts in the liberal commentariat concerning the seemingly unhealthy relationship between Putin and Trump.

Carrying the flag are Franklin Foer (New Republic: Putin’s Puppet), Paul Krugman (New York Times: Donald Trump: The Siberian Candidate), Jonathan Chait (New York Magazine: Is Donald Trump Working for Russia?), Daniel Drezner (Washington Post: Is Donald Trump a Putin Patsy?)

Jeffrey Goldberg does the Clinton campaign a solid over at the Atlantic with It’s Official: Hillary Clinton is Running Against Vladimir Putin.

Over in digital media, Talking Points Memo has been pushing the story relentlessly.  Most recent iteration: It Can’t Be Dismissed.

What’s interesting to me is that none of these pieces offer conclusive evidence.  We are in the zone of those two glorious media and rhetorical exemplars, Peggy Noonan and Donald Rumsfeld.

As in:

Is it irresponsible to speculate?  It would be irresponsible not to.
                Peggy Noonan, on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, as to whether Fidel Castro used incriminating phone-sex recordings to blackmail President Bill Clinton into returning miracle dolphin lad Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
                Donald Rumsfeld, on why we shouldn’t worry that UN inspectors found no WMD in Iraq pre-invasion.

What is most amusing, profiles-of-courage wise is that both Drezner and Marshall are hedging their bets (or covering their asses) in case the story doesn’t pan out in the body, while pushing the theory in the headline of their articles.

Anyway, Trumputin now part of the zeitgeist and the Clinton campaign has done the best it can to prepare for a leak to drop during convention primetime.

What happens next?  The leak drops at convention time.  Not the server leak.  The DNC leak.

What the heck.  Let’s go.  Time for Stage 2, Baking in the Narrative.

The Clinton campaign has a ready-made response: Putin dunnit.  Because Trump is Putin’s candidate.  As we all know.

Therefore, true significance of these leaks is that Vladimir Putin is trying to elect Donald Trump president of the United States.

Even though, if Putin has the contents of the e-mail server, he’s got an extremely worrisome hold over Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump.

But isn’t it a matter of patriotism to make sure that Trump can’t profit from Russian intervention?

If Russian leaks threaten to knock Hillary Clinton flat, how should the patriotic journo respond?

Maybe it means Donald Trump has to be knocked even flatter, in compensation.  By any means necessary.  To save democracy.

Media, you’ve been tasked.