January 6, 2015

Confessions of a Spin Doctor: Shedding illusions as a flak for the Cambodian People's Party [-What you should know about the EVIL Hun Xen regime]

Photo op: Bun Rany Hun Sen at a meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon

'Spinning' is a public relations service that proves indispensable to governments and autocratic regimes, particularly, those who disregard commonly accepted international norms and conventions on basic human rights such as the current one-party rule of Mr Hun Sen who employs both home bred and foreign 'spin-doctors' invariably operating under the more apolitically neutral, professional label of 'consultants', 'researchers', 'lawyers', 'experts', 'academics', etc. Many of such recruits are accredited with credentials of dubious distinction or untraceable origins. In essence, the task of spinning is to 'sell' to both domestic and international opinions an otherwise unwholesome product - or even one of repulsive nature - by rendering it cosmetically attractive and thus acceptable to the consumer. The CPP regime has opened itself to such cosmetic input and 'new blood' from the earliest days of its rule, allowing foreigners and Cambodians of non-CPP backgrounds to join the ranks of its ministries at various levels of importance and influence. This approach allows the regime to familiarise itself with the mindset and outlook of individuals schooled in the opposing camp, whilst their uncritical voluntary complicity towards the regime in exchange for a 'healthy' lifestyle helps consolidate its cause, legitimise its illegitimate rule, and at the same time, undermine and weaken the claims of its nemesis  - School of Vice   

'Stearns and I met the delegation, led by Cambodia's then Secretary of State Uch Kiman, in his room at the Hotel Washington. We were then ushered next door by Svay Sitha, a CPP spokesman. Sitha assured us of victory on election day. CPP internal poll numbers showed the final seat allocation for each party, which -- surprise, surprise!! -- was almost the exact allocation that emerged after the vote. Apparently, an impoverished country had 99 percent accurate polling capability.' [sic!]
Confessions of a Spin Doctor: Shedding illusions as a flak for the Cambodian People's Party [-What you should know about the EVIL Hun Xen regime]

[Reproduced and first posted by Heng Soy on KI Media November 01, 2011]

By Rita Colorito  

Every year foreign political leaders, governments and related principals hire lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations professionals to polish their images in the United States. As of June 30, 1998, 549 such pros, representing 728 foreign entities, were registered with the US Department of Justice. Foreign political consulting is a multi-million-dollar business in Washington. And sometimes, the cash comes from unsavory characters.

In graduate school, I remember reading an article on Edward von Kloberg III, a spin meister who's represented murderous clients like Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko and Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Despite vowing to avoid such people, two weeks after receiving my Masters in International Affairs, I began work for the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and, indirectly, Hun Sen -- an autocrat accused of human rights abuses and ousting his co-prime minister in a bloody 1997 coup.

In the summer of 1998, the CPP had hired DMG, Inc., a Washington-based strategic communications firm, to represent the party in the US during Cambodia's first ever self-sponsored national elections. David Morey, the firm's president, was a professor of mine at Columbia University. His past clients include Philippine President Corazon Aquino, the Dalai Lama, and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung.

He explained that the CPP wanted advice on conducting free and fair elections, improving human rights, and establishing an international tribunal for the Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of some two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Thus, I became part of Cambodia's Washington team, which included lawyers James Stearns of Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur and William Rogers of lobbying powerhouse Arnold & Porter.

Based on Morey's record, I accepted the client's altruistic intentions and thought we could help. You see, representing such clients requires not only fooling others, but yourself. I soon realized, however, autocrats don't want advice about justice. Like claiming we worked for the party's reform wing, saying we were helping to improve human rights simply provided a "feel-good" excuse. Our client clearly wanted to preserve the status quo.
Rationalizing the Vote

In the months before Cambodia's July 27 elections, Washington frequently voiced its dislike and mistrust of the CPP and Hun Sen. The Clinton Administration, congressional leaders, and newspaper editorials advocated postponing the elections. By ousting his co-prime minister, they argued, Hun Sen had strong-armed his way into holding new elections he could control.

Taking semantics to absurdity, we argued that the coup was merely a military confrontation between the armies of Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Fortunately for our side, the Clinton Administration agreed. Maybe they were still feeling guilty about the secret US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Tony Kevin, the former Australian Ambassador to Cambodia, also voiced our version of the coup. Although Kevin called Hun Sen a thug and denounced his human rights record, he advocated that the elections proceed as planned.

The media charged Kevin whitewashed Hun Sen and accused him of being a CPP supporter. He wasn't, but we couldn't have asked for a better "neutral" advocate.

We actively promoted Kevin during his visit to Washington. Arnold & Porter hosted a dinner for him, inviting a handful of reporters and academics. In addition, I secured a speaking engagement for him at the National Press Club, and helped edit an op-ed he published in The Christian Science Monitor. On election day, the ambassador would lead the Volunteer Observers for Cambodian Elections, one of several international observer groups whose job was to monitor the vote.

During a human rights panel on Capitol Hill, Kevin also voiced his fear that the Khmer Rouge might return -- another idea we harped on. We argued incessantly that only Hun Sen could deal with the lingering threat. Although he had driven the regime from Phnom Penh in 1978 -- with the help of the Vietnamese army -- we ignored the fact that he'd once been a Khmer Rouge lieutenant. More important, as of June 1998, the Khmer Rouge amounted to some 400 ill-equipped guerrillas in Cambodia's far northern jungles. Yet, our campaign mantra focused on this vastly exaggerated fear.

We also insisted that Ranariddh was colluding with the brutal ex-regime. By ousting him, we said, Hun Sen had saved Cambodia from a Khmer Rouge double-cross and return to power. Stearns convinced James Zumwalt, a freelance journalist and Vietnam Veteran, to write an op-ed in the Washington Times condemning Ranariddh. After Hun Sen became Cambodia's sole Prime Minister and offered Ranariddh a figurehead role as president, the "scheme" was conveniently forgotten.

Image Problems

Zumwalt was one of the few writers on our side. Mostly, the media disliked Hun Sen intensely. Reports accused the CPP of intimidating Cambodia's journalists and denying opposition leaders equal access to TV and radio air time.

Damning editorials in the New York Times and Washington Post particularly infuriated our client. Hun Sen and Var Huoth, Cambodia's Ambassador to the US, drafted lengthy, irate responses. Although we repeatedly advised them that the Times and Post wouldn't publish an 800-word letter to the editor, we met with stubborn resistance.

Accustomed to getting their way, CPP officials said that once the editors agreed to publish, they'd shorten the letters. Until then, Hun Sen's text was to remain intact. His responses were never published.

After the elections, the Cambodian Ambassador asked me directly how we could make the media like them. "You can't just say you'll investigate killings, you actually have to do it," I explained, referring to the 100 opposition supporters that had been killed since the 1997 coup.

The Washington team advised they investigate at least one killing to demonstrate progress. We suggested Thong Sophal, whom Cambodian police claimed had committed suicide. Sophal's eyes had been gouged out, his arms and legs cut off, and his body skinned. The ambassador looked at me blankly, then uttered the standard refrain: "It's not easy. It will take one, maybe two years."

Besides media criticism, we faced political attacks. Several congressmen, led by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, signed a resolution calling for Hun Sen to be tried for crimes against humanity. Although the resolution went nowhere, it panicked our client.

Shattered Illusions

A few weeks before the vote, a CPP delegation arrived in Washington to convince the Clinton Administration and Congress the elections would be free and fair. Since Congress decides appropriations -- and Cambodia desperately needs aid -- the delegation focused on charming the Hill.

They assumed they would have instant access to the State Department and congressional leaders. Instead, officials met mostly with information officers and congressional staffers. In Cambodia they were big fish. In Washington's foreign policy pond, they weren't even minnows.

Stearns and I met the delegation, led by Cambodia's then Secretary of State Uch Kiman, in his room at the Hotel Washington. We were then ushered next door by Svay Sitha, a CPP spokesman. Sitha assured us of victory on election day. CPP internal poll numbers showed the final seat allocation for each party, which -- surprise, surprise!! -- was almost the exact allocation that emerged after the vote. Apparently, an impoverished country had 99 percent accurate polling capability.

Although Sitha served on Cambodia's Human Rights Committee, he never asked for policy suggestions. When we stepped into the hallway, however, he said, "It's too quiet here. I work better in chaos." During lunch we asked about the killings. Investigations would take time, he replied. Supposedly, Sitha was later put in charge of investigating the extrajudicial killings.

The next day, we met at the embassy to advise the Ambassador Var Huoth on his press conference. We suggested he focus on the future, move the focus away from Hun Sen, and talk about the progress on media access and the human rights commission. I sounded like a trained parrot. No progress had been made.

We knew Hun Sen needed positive exposure, and so promised to get an exclusive election-day profile published in a major magazine. Fat chance. When it came to Cambodia, magazines were only interested in that genocidal mastermind, Pol Pot, who had died in April.

Morey wanted Sydney Schanberg of The Killing Fields fame. Schanberg wasn't exactly a fan of Hun Sen, but his name recognition increased the chances of publication. Schanberg said he would have a tough time convincing an editor to buy it and pay his expenses. When Morey and Stearns suggested other payment options, without directly going through the CPP, Schanberg declined.

I suggested Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and New York Times editorial writer. She'd been one of my professors at Columbia. Rosenberg's specialty was political villains. I told her Hun Sen would be an interesting character study. According to Morey and Stearns, who had met him several times, he wasn't as bad as everyone claimed. The man was charming, they said. He even liked to play golf.

The reasoning, of course, was oversimplified. No one ever said villains can't be charming. Even the wolf behaved pleasantly toward Little Red Riding Hood -- right before he tried to eat her.

After initially declining the offer, Rosenberg decided to write the exclusive for the Times' Sunday Magazine. We eagerly awaited the results. But the piece, titled "Hun Sen Stages an Election," didn't provide the resounding praise we wanted. An emergency phone conference was held to spin the article before the client even read it. I also heard we had 'enemies' in Cambodia who wanted us off the contract. Apparently, they thought there would be kickbacks if lobbyists they hired received the contract.

Morey assured me Rosenberg's article wasn't my fault. Why should I be blamed, I wondered, if she saw what every other reporter had seen in Hun Sen, a leader who rules with impunity? Still, for the next several weeks, my presence wasn't requested at embassy meetings. I suspect Rosenberg's article put me in disfavor.

Fine by me. Unlike public relations prostitute Edward von Kloberg, who insists he works for "democratic causes," I could no longer fool myself. I couldn't separate my principles from my paycheck.

The Spin Goes On

Toward the end, I asked Morey if I could remain in the background, and work with other, less contentious clients. I even suggested the firm not renew its CPP contract, which expired in September, because of the uninvestigated killings and lack of progress on human rights. But Morey said Rogers, whom he respected, would argue that we could affect positive change by continuing to work with the CPP. I no longer believed it.

The Cambodian People's Party didn't care about human rights progress or an international tribunal. It simply wanted favorable media coverage and renewed international aid. It also wanted Cambodia to reclaim its seat at the UN and gain membership into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Basically, the client wanted money, power, and prestige.

Since then, Cambodia has achieved most of those goals. Today, it has a UN seat, millions in aid from Japan and the European Union, and membership in ASEAN. For the moment, however, the US appears intent on tying economic aid to an international tribunal, something Hun Sen continues to stall. When my DMG contract ended last December, I didn't renew.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

All of the CPP suporter do not thing the killibg field ever happen..