Bun Rany, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's wife. Photo: Wikipedia
Bun Rany, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's wife. Photo: Wikipedia

The recent ignoble falls from grace of two of Asia’s former “first ladies” – the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos and Malaysia’s Rosmah Mansor – raise some relevant questions for Cambodia and the international community: Could Cambodia’s Bun Rany, the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen, be next on the list?

The answer lies in addressing further questions: Will the wife of Cambodia’s longtime prime minister ever be investigated for allegations regarding the 1999 murder of actress Piseth Pilika? Will Bun Rany be investigated for using the Red Cross emblem to bolster her husband’s leadership?

Most important, does Cambodia under Hun Sen subscribe to the same “Asian values” or norms embraced by other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

Early this month, Imelda Marcos, who was the Philippines’ first lady for the 21 years of Ferdinand Marcos’ reign and, after the country’s return to democratic rule, was elected to Congress, was found guilty in court of seven counts of graft, with each count punishable by a minimum of six years in prison – for a possible total jail term of 42 years. It was reported that the ruling automatically disqualified her from holding public office.

As for Cambodia, the day that one of its tycoons, let alone the wife of its prime minister, is tried and prosecuted as we seen elsewhere in Asia such as Malaysia and the Philippines will never materialize so long as authoritarians run the country.

These concerns have been well documented. As recently as July the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) submitted a number of concerns to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review Working Group on Cambodia for 2019, highlighting:

  1. Misuse of the law under the false pretext of the “rule of law”;
  2. Lack of an independent and impartial judiciary.

In Malaysia, by contrast, ex-prime minister Najib Razak’s wife – who just two years ago hosted a function in honor of Bun Rany – was arrested in October and charged by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission with 17 counts of money-laundering, which could net Rosmah Mansor 15 years in prison if she is convicted.

Cambodia does not subscribe to Asian values

Evidently, the arrests of their former first ladies by the governments of the Philippines and Malaysia shows that Cambodia cannot be compared to other ASEAN member states in relation to national interest, the application of the rule of law and jurisprudence. For these countries put national interest over and above individual elites, while in Cambodia, the law applies to everyone else except the ruling regime.

Cambodia cannot justify a claim as an Asian nation conforming to “Asian values or democracy,” as long as the current regime is labeled as an “authoritarian state with no democracy.”

As such Cambodia’s fundamental values on leadership, judiciary and good governance are being driven by the regime itself, and are not part of “Asian values.”

As Cambodians are being subjected to a life of fear of the regime, their tolerance of the regime and willingness to comply with orders by the regime in the face of conflict contribute to “Cambodian values” as opposed to “Asian values.”

Further, the arrests of two of Asia’s infamous former first ladies show that the Philippines and Malaysia, in this sense, in contrast to Cambodia, conform to international standards in holding its powerful elites answerable before a competent jurisdiction.

In Cambodia, after almost 30 years of international efforts to develop its judicial system, the country’s jurisprudence is being nullified by Hun Sen’s dictatorship. Unlike members of the judiciary of the Philippines and Malaysia, corruption supersedes jurisprudence for Hun Sen’s judges. While judges in the Philippines and Malaysia serve their respective countries in most cases, in Cambodia, the judges always serve the regime as supposed to the nation or the community.

The submissions made by the ICJ to the Human Rights Council urged the working group on Cambodia to “take necessary measures to hold to account perpetrators of harassment, intimidation and violence against members of the political opposition, civil society, critical media, lawyers, prosecutors, judges and/or individuals for the legitimate exercise of their fundamental freedoms.”

Bun Rany is known colloquially as chumteav tom, loosely translated as “big baroness.” But behind the façade, like her husband’s illegitimate election and faux democracy, Bun Rany while presenting herself as a faux baroness has a string of serious allegations far more serious than those leveled against Marcos and Rosmah – including murder.

The murder of Piseth Pilika, a popular actress and the alleged mistress of Bun Rany’s husband Hun Sen, made international headlines in July 1999. The murder sent shockwaves and outrage across the country, and has never been solved. The killing reportedly halted negotiations between the United Nations and Hun Sen on the composition of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Fifteen years later, Sebastian Strangio in his book Hun Sen’s Cambodia  noted an unconfirmed allegation that the actress had been murdered on the order of Bun Rany.

Despite the actress’ diary identifying Bun Rany as her would-be likely killer, there was no investigation. How could there be when the “competent” authorities were controlled by her husband?

The actress reported wrote in her diary: “Ms Bun Rany was very angry up to the point of attempting to take my life. I thought that I do not know whether they would spare my life or kill me because the earth is controlled by them. I have only God.”

A 1999 report by CNN noted: “From the outset, few expected a proper investigation of the Pilika case.… The vast majority of killings and other crimes in Cambodia, political and otherwise, go unsolved.”

Speaking from her grave, the deceased actress appeal to “God” was a clear plea to the international community and the United Nations to help her.

Using the Red Cross to serve the ruling regime

While her husband, Hun Sen, has led Cambodia as prime minister for more than 30 years, Bun Rany has been the president of the Cambodian Red Cross for 20 years. In fact Strangio wrote that the CRC “functions as a conduit for Hun Sen’s patronage.”

An independent report by Human Rights Watch pointed to Bun Rany using her position as head of a humanitarian organization to bolster her husband’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) during a speech that she gave in 2013: “When there are floods … [you] have seen that there is no other party coming to help you…. There is only the CPP, because all civil servants are CPP.”

To legitimize that stance, Bun Rany stacked the board of the CRC with “political and business elites closely associated to a regime characterized by corruption and the brutal suppression of political opposition, including murder, torture and arbitrary imprisonment.”

While the former first ladies of Malaysia and the Philippines have been arrested and the latter successfully prosecuted, don’t expect any similar outcome under Hun Sen’s regime. Likewise, so long as the international community continues to be oblivious, including the International Federation of the Red Cross, victims who have suffered under crimes committed by Cambodia’s elite will never live to see justice.

Until the United Nations address the recommendations by the ICJ to the Human Rights Council and other reports presented to it, Cambodia’s criminal justice will be used discriminatively to favor and protect those who serve the ruling regime. It is highly unlikely that any of the allegations against Cambodia’s first lady will be investigated, let alone prosecuted.

Sawathey Ek is a lawyer based in Sydney.

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