Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Facebook rumours of imminent Cambodia coups and other Chinese whispers

There was no coup yesterday. It was just another Facebook rumour. Facebook has its good points, allowing people to stay in real-time contact, share information and mobilze but it can also be the home of false rumours passed from one user to another in a digital Chinese whisper.
At one point yesterday, in Sam Rainsy’s car chatting with him, I received a text message that he was, at that moment, leading a march of 800 demonstrators to the National Assembly. Where and how these rumours start is a mystery but they soon take on a life of their own and are accepted as fact if heard from multiple sources. “How could so many people be wrong?”
All in quiet in Phnom Penh this Thursday. Other than a couple of burnt police cars on the day, the elections have been singularly free of violence, itself a sign of progress in a country in which intimidation and murder have been regular features of previous elections. The cheating on the part of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party seems to have been confined to guaranteeing that more than a million voters in districts where Rainsy is very popular, had no opportunity to vote. It is hard to overestimate the effect that Rainsy has on people when he appears, when she speaks. He is greeted like a rock star.
Rainsy has insisted that there be an independent investigation into why these million voters could not cast their ballots – an investigation involving both political parties and independent observers. The ruling CPP initially rejected such an investigation as unnecessary but has, this past 24 hours, agreed to participate. “They have no choice,” says Rainsy. Neither the Cambodian people nor the international donor community will accept the results as they stand at present. There are simply too many well documented ‘irregularities’. As everyone knows, when demonstrations begin, things can get ugly.
So how does a filmmaker get to be making a film about the leader of the opposition party in Cambodia? In 1998, working as a one man band on another documentary, CHANTI’S WORLD, I decided to spend a few months covering the Cambodian elections from the perspective of Sam Rainsy. The previous year Rainsy had survived an assassination attempt. A hand grenade was thrown into the middle of a peaceful demonstration he was holding calling for the reform of the Cambodian judiciary. Ten demonstrators died.
Rainsy struck me as a man passionately committed to seeing true democracy flourish in his country and not fearful for his own safety. A man with a mission, which, when I asked him about it, he replied, “I want to bring my people out of the darkness and into the light.” Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had lost the previous election but managed to stay in power with a variety of stratagems, including a coup, won a landslide victory in the 1998 election. The evidence that Hun Sen owed his victory to massive fraud was overwhelming but all appeals were dismissed by the National Electoral Committee, made up of supporters of Hun Sen’s CPP party.
No broadcaster in the world was interested in a documentary about the leader of an opposition party in a small south east Asian country who loses an election and, after all, as the BBC told me, “John Pilger has done Cambodia.” So, I shelved the project thinking that one day in the future there will be another election and perhaps in that one Rainsy will win. So, within an hour of my hearing that Rainsy had received a pardon from the King I had booked a flight to Phnom Penh and here I am covering the aftermath of yet another election that the CPP insists Rainsy has lost and which Rainsy insists that he has won. If Rainsy is eventually declared the winner and becomes Prime Minister there will, I hope, be interest in my documentary. If he does not win I suspect that there will be little broadcaster interest in a doco about an opposition leader who has failed yet again to wrest power from the incumbent Prime Minister. Such is the life of an independent filmmaker. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


The latest rumour in Phnom Penh, as the city sleeps,  is that there will be a coup today, Wednesday; that the army has been mobilized and by the end of the day that it will be in control of Cambodia. 

The last two days, since Sunday's election, have been filled with rumours, spreading like wild fire on Facebook then passed on as fact by word of mouth. All of the rumours, so far, have turned out to be false. Perhaps the imminent coup one is also. 

One rumour that seems to be true, however, is that leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy’s the Cambodian National Rescue Party has won more votes and more seats in the National Assembly (63 out of 123) in the election, despite the many ‘irregularities’ that saw more than one million Cambodians robbed of their right to vote as a result of their names disappearing from the voting lists.

If Sam Rainsy has won the election it will be an amazing turnaround in fortunes for a man who was, just two weeks ago in exile in France. He could not return to Cambodia without risking an eleven year jail sentence handed down by the notoriously  corrupt Cambodian judiciary,  beholden as it is to ‘strongman’ Prime Minister Hun Sen. The nonsensical charges against Rainsy were, as is so often the case when Hun Sen's CPP wishes to silence a critic, politically motivated.

In mid July, however, Rainsy received a Royal Pardon from Cambodia's King and was able to return to the country on 19th July and start campaigning for an election in which he would be unable to stand for a seat in the National Assembly and in which he would not even be able to vote.

Rainsy’s chances of becoming Prime Minister, of his party winning the popular vote 
were close to zero, as Rainsy freely acknowledged, but when he started to attend rallies and the crowds grew from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, it became clear that millions of Cambodians were investing their hopes and dreams in him to bring true democracy to a country that, after the ravages of the Khmer Rouge years, has been subjected to 28 years of human rights abuses, land grabbing, deforestation of the last remaining rain forests at the hands of the kleptocracy that runs the country – the family and friends of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

People who had, for the past close to three decades, been afraid to express their feelings about ‘strongman’ Hun Sen, justifiably fearing retribution if they did, now felt safe to do so openly. And Cambodia’s youth, a new Facebook generation, until recently politically disengaged, were able to use social media to find out what was actually going on in their country (the state run media being the only options open to them until a few years ago), to share information and, on election day, to bear witness with their mobile phone cameras to the various forms of fraud being perpetrated at polling stations all around the country. These have been posted online so that all Cambodians with access to a mobile phone can see and hear for themselves what actually happened as opposed to what the Ministry of Information tells them happened - the same Ministry that is now declaring that the elections were free and fair and that there is no evidence of the more than one million voters that the CNRP claims to have disappeared from the voting lists.

In the final days leading up to the election Cambodian air was filled with hope and the refrain that became the catchcry for Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party – ‘change, change, change.’ And change Cambodia has this past 48 hours. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party seems to be in shock. Far from the landslide that Hun Sen predicted (he has always won in the past with landslides) he had no choice, the day after the election and with considerable loss of face, to admit that his party had lost at least 22 seats of the 90 it had in the last National Assembly.

How could Hun Sen’s CPP lose so many seats when the party had put so much effort into denying voters for the opposition the right to vote, in creating so many ghost voters, in issuing many duplicate registrations such that when people turned up to vote someone had already voted in the place? It is because the people of Cambodia have had enough of Hun Sen and his corrupt cronies and want him gone. All those whose task it was to guarantee that he win another landslide had not counted on just how effective the will of a people can be when they want true democracy and not the sham version of it represented by the CPP and propped up year after year by an international donor community (including Australia) prepared to pay half Cambodia's bills whilst not insisting that Hun Sen get serious about transforming Cambodia from a kleptocracy into a democracy.

If there is a coup today, it is unclear if it will be the army defending Hun Sen’s right to remain in power as a dictator or will the army’s aim be to remove Hun Sen from power by force if he will not accept the election results and concede defeat? Hun Sen has 10,000 personal bodyguards who are, all Cambodians have been led to believe, fiercely loyal to him but, at the time of writing, a new rumour has it that the leader of this 10,000 strong bodyguard corps has resigned tonight. Will the other 9,999 bodyguards remain loyal to Hun Sen if the rest of the Cambodian people want him gone? 

Coup or no coup it is going to be an interesting day in Cambodia.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013


The National Elections in Cambodia tomorrow will be a major turning point in the country’s history regardless of who wins  - the Cambodian People’s Party, in power for 28 years under Prime Minister Hun Sen, or the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by president, Sam Rainsy.

That the president of the major opposition party, only recently returned from exile to escape an 11 year jail sentence,  is not allowed to stand for parliament provides a clue as to how free and fair the election will be. 

Rainsy's CNRP, promising free health care, education and pensioner rights, an increase in factory and civil servant wages, to bring to an end forced evictions and illegal land grabs, to lower the prices for rice, electricity and petrol, is very popular with voters all around the country.

 If the size of the pre-election rallies and the enthusiasm of the crowds attending them is any indication, Sam Rainsy’s CNRP would almost certainly win the election. However, the 1.2 million voters who registered in the lead-up to the election who cannot find their names on voting lists (the majority of them supporters of the CNRP) will not be able to vote, representing a huge setback for the CNRP.  This is just one of many ‘irregularities’ (a euphemism much in use by donor countries afraid to call a spade a spade!) in the electoral process (controlled in its entirety by Hun Sen’s CPP) that will almost certainly rob the CNRP of the victory that should rightfully be Rainsy’s.

Despite its huge nation-wide popularity the CNRP will not, short of a miracle, wrest power from ‘strongman’ (another diplomatic euphemism!) Prime Minister Hun Sen in tomorrow’s elections. It is certainly on the cards, however, in the wake of the defeat of Rainsy’s CNRP, that the young people of Cambodia -a switched on Facebook generation - will take to the streets, make their presence felt and demand change – the word, in Khmer, that plays a very similar role in this Cambodian election to the ‘It’s Time’ slogan that helped win Whitlam the Australian federal election in 1972. Last night, as I walked and rode through Phnom Penh on a motor bike, it was this one chanted word, this mantra – ‘change’ -  that was literally on everyone’s lips, echoing through the streets on a warm and humid Friday night as enthusiastic young CNRP called out to each other and dreamt of a better future.

Hun Sen’s CPP gained its legitimacy from the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime – a fact that the party keeps reminding the populace to this day. However, Cambodia’s young, who had no experience of the Khmer Rouge and who do not feel under any obligation to politicians like Hun Sen (in their 60s and 70s now) for having ‘saved’ them from communism, do not fear the intimidation that pervaded previous elections. Perhaps it is because they know, from the Arab Spring, that impossible dreams may not be impossible after all. These young Cambodians want much more than mere peace. They want jobs and they want to enjoy the benefits of development in Cambodia that at present enriches only the families of the kleptocracy that runs the country.

There is a feeling of excitement in the air today – the hundreds of thousands of young CNRP who have taken to the streets  these past few weeks convinced, by dint of their sheer numbers that Hun Sen must surely lose the election; that the country is on the brink of a major change. When Hun Sen does not lose the election (and it is almost certain that he will not since  he controls the entire electoral and appeals processes) and their hopes are dashed, what will these young idealists do? How will they respond?

In the unlikely event that Rainsy’s CNRP does win, it is hard to imagine that Hun Sen will give up power - after 28 years of enjoying it and enriching himself, his family and his cronies with it - without a fight. What sort of fight remains to be seen. Perhaps a clue is to be found in the fact that Hun Sen has, on several occasions this past few months, issued thinly veiled threats that if the CPP loses, Cambodia could be pitched into a civil war. Hun Sen has not made it clear just who would be fighting whom - unless it is Hun Sen's 10,000 strong personal bodyguard and the army, both fiercely loyal to him, against all those who did not vote for him. That the Prime Minister of a supposed democracy, propped up with funds from donor countries such as Australia and the US, needs 10,000 personal bodyguards speaks volumes of the regime he leads or, throwing political correctness to the winds, the dictatorship he presides over.

Interestingly, young Cambodians armed with mobile phones and sharing information on Facebook, now feel free to call Hun Sen a dictator and to accuse him and his political cronies of corruption. They no longer fear him. If the loss of fear of their leaders on the part of the populace is one of the things that dictators dread most, Hun Sen must be a worried man. He will almost certainly win the election but forces have been unleashed by the events leading up to this election over which he has no control. Recent global history suggests that his days are numbered.

It may be, if Hun Sen does lose the election, that he decides to cling to power in the same way that the Generals clung to it in Burma after the 1990 elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi's  National League for Democracy. If so, how will the international donor community react? Will it (and this includes Australia) continue to provide aid to Cambodia or will the spigot be turned off until the will of the people is adhered to?

The election itself is but the beginning of the story though – regardless of who wins. It is what happens in the week following the election that will be most interesting. Just as Hun Sen will not accept losing government, nor will Cambodia’s youth accept having their hopes and dreams dashed by their corrupt and now very wealthy leaders. The stage is set for a confrontation of some kind and it is to be hoped that Hun Sen tells his 10,000 bodyguards, armed with state of the art weaponry, to act with restraint when these young Cambodians take to the street next week in protest, as they surely will.

As Sam Rainsy says, the election result will not be the end of anything but the beginning of what is shaping up to be the country’s own Khmer-style ‘Cambodia Spring.’ What form this will take and how long it will take is the question everyone in Cambodia is asking and that no-one has the answer to.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Members of the Screen Australia Board
Level 4, 150 William St
Woolloomooloo 2011                                                                                                

24th July 2013

Dear Board Members

It is now 14 months since you ratified Ruth Harley’s ban on me, during which time I have asked you, repeatedly, to provide me with evidence that I have intimidated or placed at risk members of Screen Australia’s staff. You have declined to do so.

The ban’s clear aim was to punish me, to make it as difficult as possible for me to pursue my career as a filmmaker. In this Ruth and yourselves, as members of the Board, have been successful on one level.  No right thinking person within the industry wants to collaborate with a filmmaker who has been banned by Screen Australia and most particularly not with one who, according to the Board, intimidates staff and places them at risk with his correspondence.   

On the creative front, however, you have failed in your objective. I have continued to write screenplays and, when I have a little money, to add to my now 18 year record on the life of Chanti, the star of CHANTI’S WORLD – a documentary project that has not received one cent of funding from any source this past 18 years.

I have, this past couple of months, completed drafts of four of the screenplays I have been working on this past year – three of which I have provided links to below. All four have been developed to the point where, were I not a banned filmmaker, I would be applying to Screen Australia for a letter of interest and for money to employ a script editor. I can do neither of these things and will not be able to do so until May 2014. What will change next May is that my sentence will be completed – two years in filmmaker’s purgatory for a crime I did not commit and for which no evidence has ever been provided to prove my guilt.

The clear aim of the ban is to silence a critic and, since I am not going to cease being a critic it may be that the ban will need to be extended – though Screen Australia’s new Chief Executive might (hopefully will) be someone who does not believe in banning filmmakers without providing them with evidence of their crimes and giving them an opportunity to defend themselves on the basis of evidence and facts.

Whether or not any of my four screenplays is any good is not for me to decide. Each of them has, however, been developed by me this past year in my role as producer – a role that Martha Coleman, Fiona Cameron and Elizabeth Grinston claimed, in 2009,  I could not play in script development beyond first draft as a result of my not being a ‘proven producer’. (Nor could I act as a mentor/producer to young filmmakers!) Having been producing films for more than 40 years this proposition was, of course, nonsense, as Martha, Fiona and Elizabeth knew to be the case.

Even if I had not been producing films since the early 70s, the notion that a screenwriter cannot develop a screenplay beyond first draft without a producer to hold his or her hand makes no sense. One only has to look at the poor quality of so many films produced from Australian screenplays with ‘proven producers’ at the helm to see that this is so. And, conversely, many fine films produced by first up producers. It should be the quality of the project that matters, not whether or not ticks can be placed in all the appropriate boxes.

The fact is that Screen Australia’s policy vis a vis ‘proven producers’ (along with many another policy) is applied selectively on the basis of subjective decisions made by senior members of Screen Australia management. And this is as it should be, as long as the playing field is level and these subjective decisions are made on the basis of the quality of the project and not for personal reasons - ie, not because the filmmaker applicant is either a friend or an enemy of members of senior management.

Clearly I fall into the ‘enemy’ camp and none of my screenplays  will be read by anyone at Screen Australia, regardless of their quality, for as long as I am a banned filmmaker. In a country that struggles to produce very many high quality screenplays this would be bad policy at the best of times. To apply it to a filmmaker on the basis of trumped up charges is petty, vindictive and just plain stupid.

Three screenplays that cannot be read by anyone at Screen Australia because the reading of them would place the reader at risk!




If any one of these four projects were to be provided with a letter of interest  and funds to employ a script editor I would then seek an appropriate co-producer to work with me on that project. And then, with a co-producer in place, seek the best possible director for it. That this sequence of events, regardless of the quality or potential of the projects, is impossible, is just plain stupid policy.

Please, either lift this pointless, vindictive and counter-productive ban or make public evidence in support of it.

best wishes

James Ricketson