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US Restricts Visas for Cambodians ‘Undermining Democracy’

As a response to anti-democratic actions, Trump administration restrict VISA for Cambodians

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Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a ceremony at the Angkor Wat temple to pray for peace and stability in Cambodia, Dec. 3, 2017.

The Trump administration announced Wednesday it will restrict visas for Cambodians “undermining democracy” in the Southeast Asian nation following the dissolution of the main opposition party and a crackdown on independent media.

The State Department said it was a direct response to “anti-democratic actions” by the Cambodian government but did not disclose which individuals would be affected. It said visa records are confidential under U.S. law.

Spokeswoman Heather Nauert called on the Cambodian government to reinstate the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by Supreme Court order last month, and free its leader Kem Sokha, imprisoned since September. She also urged Cambodia to allow civil society and media to operate freely.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power for more than three decades, has sought to neutralize political opponents and silence critics ahead of national elections next year. Kem Sokha has been charged with trying to topple the government with U.S. support, which Washington has said is a baseless accusation.

Supporters of Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, stand outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Sept. 26, 2017.

Nauert said Cambodia’s actions run counter to the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991. The United States and 18 other governments signed the accords, which ushered in democracy after the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, then occupation by Vietnam and civil war.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will restrict entry into the United States of “those individuals involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia,” Nauert said in a statement, adding that in certain circumstances, family members of those individuals will also be subject to visa restrictions. The department cited a provision of U.S. immigration law under which individuals can be denied entry if the secretary determines it would have “adverse foreign policy consequences.”

The White House has already terminated U.S. support of Cambodia’s national election committee, saying last month that the July 2018 vote “will not be legitimate, free or fair.”

“We will continue to monitor the situation and take additional steps as necessary, while maintaining our close and enduring ties with the people of Cambodia,” Nauert said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks during a press availability at NATO in Brussels, Belgium, Dec. 6, 2017.

​Monovithya Kem, an opposition spokeswoman currently in the U.S., welcomed the visa restrictions and called for targeted financial sanctions on senior officials in Hun Sen’s government. Kem, who is the daughter of Kem Sokha, urged the U.S., Japan, Australia and the European Union to coordinate responses to the “crisis” in Cambodia and help win her father’s freedom.

Like many prominent opposition figures, Kem has fled Cambodia as she fears arrest.

Hun Sen has been in office since 1985 and has held a tight grip on power since ousting a co-prime minister in a bloody 1997 coup.

In recent months, the government has intensified restrictions on civil society groups and independent media outlets. In September, it shut down the English-language Cambodia Daily. Authorities have shuttered radio stations that aired programming from U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, whose reports they allege are biased.

The government also expelled the U.S. National Democratic Institute, which helped train political parties and election monitors, accusing it of colluding with its opponents.

Hun Sen has moved Cambodia closer to China in recent years and become increasingly critical of Washington. However, he’s been complimentary of President Donald Trump.

Speaking at Asian leaders’ summit attended by Trump last month, Hun Sen praised the U.S. leader for non-interference in affairs of other nations, but complained the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia was not adhering to the policy. (VOA)

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Digital Tools Have Potential To Impact The Quality Of Public Deliberation

These messages, that shape the political opinion of target population, have a significant impact on the electoral outcomes. 

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The 28-year-old Australian who sprayed bullets on innocent people who were praying at mosques in New Zealand on March 15 decided to broadcast his act on Facebook. Pixabay

At the onset of the digital revolution, there was high expectation that digital communication technologies, especially the internet, will prove to be a boon to democracy. It was believed that the internet is a force for good.

Its power of setting up a discussion platform which cannot be influenced by authoritarian powers; potential to impact the quality of public deliberation by providing citizens with direct and unfiltered access to information; and ability to provide leaders with an inexpensive platform to engage with citizens, was supposed to drastically alter political participation, democratic governance and lead to growth of democratic regimes.

The evolution of these communication tools, as expected, did prove to be a democratising force in some cases. For instance, social media platforms enabled powerful demonstrations that played a major role in the downfall of oppressive regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. It also helped by providing the disenfranchised a voice and a way to participate in politics without joining a political party, attending meetings or visiting political offices. For instance, citizens all over the world have the power to bring their issues to light by organising online campaigns for policy change.

However, during the last decade, the negative aspects of the digital tools have become apparent. There hardly goes a day without the allegations that digital tools are undermining democracy. Research by scholars shows that digital techniques are being used to promote particular candidates or political parties; to enflame social tensions; and to spread fake news.

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The evolution of these communication tools, as expected, did prove to be a democratising force in some cases. For instance, social media platforms enabled powerful demonstrations that played a major role in the downfall of oppressive regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Pixabay

There are three ways in which influencers use digital tools to impact political participation as well as outcomes of democratic decision-making process.

First, spreading fake news by conducting active disinformation campaigns. The problem has evolved as greater access to information has not been accompanied by digital literacy programmes to educate citizens how to discern genuine from fake news. The primary digital techniques used to publicise misinformation are “bots” and “sock – puppets.”

Bots are algorithmically driven computer programmes designed to do specific tasks online. They are used by political parties or campaign teams of candidates to rebroadcast content i.e. dampen or amplify messages. Sock-puppets are human-operated fake accounts used for the same purpose of spreading misinformation. In addition to amplifying messages, they are used to reply to other social media accounts as the credibility of sock-puppets is higher than bots. The gravity of problem of misinformed citizens, is higher than that of uninformed citizens, as the misinformed citizens are committed to their untrue beliefs. The news world is filled with examples of fake news.

Second, cyber-attacks on databases. The theft and publication of government’s and political party’s private data has become a common form of digital interference during elections. These cyberattacks, based on the motive, can be categorised in two groups. One, the attackers, motivated by public interest, leak material that expose wrongdoings of political parties or candidates. Two, the attackers leak information to advance personal interest, rather than public interest. For instance, they publish data about their political opponents or the political parties they oppose.

The value of hacked data is very high, given it is only available to police or intelligence agencies and hence such leaks have high political consequences. Examples of such attacks include leaking hacked data of seven key members of Democratic National Party in 2016 that caused reputational harm and leaking of email trails and documents belonging to campaign team of Enamuel Macron two days before 2017 French presidential elections. Apart from data breaches, tampering with voting machines, voters lists and databases that are integral to the voting process also threaten election integrity.

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These examples are reflective of the idea that democracy is under digital attack. The digital communication tools, that were once expected to make democracy more resilient, have started to look more like democracy’s nemesis. Pixabay

Third, using big data and micro targeting techniques. In recent years, the world has experienced an exponential growth in data accumulation and processing. This rise in data accumulation, has made micro-targeting easier, compared to the pre-digital era. The influencers use algorithms to identify their target population and disseminate messages to them by using social media. These messages, that shape the political opinion of target population, have a significant impact on the electoral outcomes.

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A prime example of the use of big data to influence voters is the Brexit referendum. The ‘Leave” party was assisted by companies that helped them micro-target advertisements and manipulate the behaviour of voters.

These examples are reflective of the idea that democracy is under digital attack. The digital communication tools, that were once expected to make democracy more resilient, have started to look more like democracy’s nemesis. India is no stranger to these issues. Social media has become a hotspot for spread of misinformation and mischief in India as evidenced in infamous episodes of mob lynching across the country. With general elections less than a month away for the world’s largest democracy, it is critical that digital mediums are not misused. (IANS)