Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Author: Sopheap Chak (page 2 of 28)

Time for Cambodian women to take the lead

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 08 March 2016)

Huge strides have been made for women’s progress in Cambodia over the last couple of decades. Women’s presence is strongly felt within the workforce and more women have begun to climb the career ladder and assume higher-level positions than ever before.

Today we see women dominating in one of Cambodia’s largest industries – the garment sector – and women taking up office jobs, becoming entrepreneurs, obtaining positions within local government and even becoming parliamentarians.

Women’s participation in grassroots-level activism is also strongly felt. Among the throngs of demonstrators that routinely take to the streets in Cambodia to demand their rights in the face of widespread violations, growing numbers of women are joining the ranks.

Women activists and human rights defenders are organising, mobilising, and leading advocacy initiatives throughout the country. From Phnom Penh to the remotest of provinces, women are leading communities to demand their rights. The overwhelming female presence in the struggle for the recognitions of human rights in Cambodia is undeniable.

International Women’s Day (IWD), observed across the globe today, celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. In Cambodia – a country where historically women have been discouraged from participating in social and political actions – there is much to celebrate. Women are increasingly playing an important role in community-level activism, showing just how far Cambodia has moved forward in terms of women’s empowerment.

This year, one initiative that is taking place to celebrate IWD is a campaign to #PledgeforParity, which calls on individuals to pledge to take a concrete step in terms of purposeful action to help achieve gender parity.

While women’s progress in Cambodia is certainly laudable, women continue to be discriminated against and underrepresented in key decision-making roles in public and political life. Parity, unfortunately, remains out of reach.

For example, the International Federation of Journalists has found that although high numbers of women have begun to join the traditionally male-dominated media, they remain significantly underrepresented in key decision-making roles.

Similarly, in Cambodia’s garment sector, while women make up 86 per cent of the workforce, a survey conducted by the Solidarity Center has found the majority of union leaders to be male.

The lack of female leadership within the industry means that pressing gender-related issues affecting the majority of the workforce – for example, maternity rights, poor sanitation and the gender wage gap – are largely overlooked within the labour movement.

Of great concern is the lack of women’s representation in politics. The last National Assembly elections, held in July 2013, saw the first decrease in women’s representation in parliament in 20 years and a failure to meet the Millennium Development Goal of 30 per cent female representation in parliament by 2015.

The situation has only worsened since. Only recently the National Assembly has come under fire for a lack of commitment to ensuring women’s representation among lawmakers, as the number of female parliamentarians decreased to below 20 per cent in 2015.

Indeed, the glaring absence of women in influential roles in Cambodia is largely due to a lack of understanding of – and commitment to – gender mainstreaming. This is problematic considering prevailing traditional attitudes that discriminate against women.

Revealing the less than favourable attitude towards female leaders, Ath Thorn, president of the garment industry’s largest independent union – the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union – has remarked that its members are reluctant to elect women leaders as they are viewed as less capable.

It’s not just within leadership where Cambodia is failing its women. Gender-based violence remains a key concern in Cambodia. A report released by the World Health Organization late last year revealed domestic abuse of women to be a pressing concern in Cambodia, with over a fifth of women suffering physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Equally as alarming, a UN survey in 2013 found that one in five Cambodian men admitted to having raped a woman.

To give credit where credit is due, the royal government of Cambodia has taken decisive and positive steps regarding gender empowerment. The government has a specific national gender equality strategy – the National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women 2014-2018 – which focuses on women’s economic empowerment and preventing gender-based violence.

In addition, a number of civil society organisations continue to work tirelessly to bridge the gender gap by supporting and empowering women.

Such efforts have been the driving force behind women’s progress in the Kingdom. Yet, much work remains to be done. It’s not just about fulfilling quotas. We need to begin focusing on the quality of women’s participation, as well as the quantity.

In light of the upcoming elections, it is vital that concrete measures are taken to ensure women’s participation in decision-making roles in both public and political spheres. It’s time for Cambodian women to take up their places as leaders.

On the long road ahead in the fight for gender equality, I pledge to continue to challenge gender bias, and inspire and empower women in Cambodia to become leaders in their fields. I call upon all Cambodians to join me, and #PledgeforParity, to ensure a more inclusive and equal Cambodia.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Human rights in Cambodia

People march along a road in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district earlier this week in the lead up to International Human Rights Day.

People march along a road in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district earlier this week in the lead up to International Human Rights Day. LICADHO
Thu, 10 December 2015

Amid the high-profile human rights violations and chaos that characterise the current political climate in Cambodia, it may seem somewhat bizarre that we observe a national holiday in honour of International Human Rights Day.

The 67th commemoration of the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, provides a fitting opportunity to reflect on the past, present and, most importantly, the future of human rights in the Kingdom.

Four weeks ago, an arrest warrant was issued for opposition leader Sam Rainsy. This was the highest-profile event in a year that has been marked by multiple restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This warrant, if executed, would see Sam Rainsy join Senator Hong Sok Hour and 11 other opposition activists in prison, jailed for their opposition to the ruling regime.

In each of these cases, the arrests, convictions and warrants were politically motivated and executed by a judiciary lacking in independence.

The issuing of the warrant for Sam Rainsy follows the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly in October – an incident widely reported to have been orchestrated by the ruling party.

Aside from the political opposition, the royal government of Cambodia has additionally targeted a variety of other groups that it views as opposed to its interests; namely, non-governmental organisations, trade unions, human rights defenders and ordinary people who dare to speak out against government malpractice.

Recently adopted legislation, such as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), represents a clear attempt to limit freedom of expression and association. In the background, Cambodia’s countless victims of land grabbing struggle to make their voices heard amid the pervasive political instability.

In this oppressive context, one could be forgiven for believing that the human rights movement in Cambodia has floundered.

This year’s International Human Rights Day is devoted to the launch of a yearlong campaign commemorating 50 years since the adoption of the two most important human rights treaties of all: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

While the incidents highlighted above primarily relate to violations of civil and political rights, it is equally important to consider Cambodia’s progress in the realm of economic and social rights.

Asian leaders often claim that the human rights movement unjustly focuses on civil and political rights, while ignoring progress for economic and social rights, such as access to adequate housing, health care and education.

Cambodia’s leaders, however, would struggle to succeed with such an argument. GDP continues to surge and skyscrapers and shopping malls now crowd the Phnom Penh skyline.

Yet these developments cast a long shadow, leaving the vast majority of the Cambodian people – who gain little or no benefit from Cambodian-style crony capitalism – in the dark.

According to the latest figures from the World Bank, 32 per cent (or approximately 0.5 million) of Cambodian children under 5 years old are stunted due to malnutrition, and 82 per cent (12.2 million people) of Cambodia’s people do not have access to piped water supply.

Nevertheless, any serious assessment of Cambodia’s human rights situation must also recognise the significant achievements of the Cambodian human rights movement since the end of the civil war in 1991.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), along with partner human rights organisations, has spent many years working to empower citizens to advocate for their rights in every corner of the country. Community outreach, human rights training, and public forums conducted by Cambodia’s human rights organisations have had a deep and lasting impact on the population, as well as the sociopolitical landscape of the Kingdom.

For a country at Cambodia’s stage in development, it is remarkable how many Cambodians are aware of their human rights – and how to stand up for them. The democratising effect of this work cannot be overstated. As a result, the Cambodian people today are not likely to allow their rights to be violated without mounting a response.

The impact can be seen from the protests that regularly fill the streets of Phnom Penh, to the community solidarity in the face of land grabbing in Cambodia’s remote provincial villages; everywhere, Cambodian people are standing up for their rights in the face of injustice.

Typically, Phnom Penh City Hall officials have refused to allow NGOs to conduct a peaceful march through the city for this year’s International Human Rights Day – citing traffic concerns and public security as justifications.

The government, it appears, is increasingly nervous about large gatherings of people in the capital – as also evidenced by the recent cancellation of the Water Festival. Cambodia has one of the youngest populations in the world.

Our young people understand their rights, and they are willing to stand up for them – often at significant personal risk. The government is well aware of this, and feels threatened by this people power. But the government surely also recognises that it can’t continue to repress dissent forever.

The tide of empowered youth is simply too strong, and within the youth lies the hope for a brighter future – one based on equality and respect for human rights.

Right across Cambodia today, determined communities – many of them victims of the government’s attitude towards human rights and development – are holding events to mark International Human Rights Day.

These activists and communities are supported by a vibrant civil society, encompassing many determined and well-organised human rights advocates.

The impact of the Cambodian human rights movement’s work to empower the younger generation will be felt for many years to come.

It would take much, much more than a cancelled march and an NGO law to undo this work. From the perspective of those who wish to curtail human rights, the “damage” has already been done.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Imperfect pact: remembering the Paris Peace Agreement

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

From left: Khmer Rouge factions leaders Im Chuun Lin, Cambodian Premier Hun Sen, Dith Munty, Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Ieng Mouly and Khieu Samphan applaud after signing the treaty that ended decades of civil war in Cambodia on October 23, 1991, in Paris. AFP

Fri, 23 October 2015

On this day 24 years ago, 19 governments came together to sign the Paris Peace Agreements, which finally provided a comprehensive political settlement to end the “tragic conflict and continuing bloodshed” that tore Cambodia apart for decades.

Since 1970, Cambodia was respectively ravaged by an intensive bombing campaign by foreign militaries, a coup d’état, the inconceivable horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, and a bloody civil war. As some of the worst victims of the brutality of Cold War realpolitick, it is truly a testament to the spirit of the Cambodian people that the nation has been able to move on from such a history.

Today, it is appropriate for all of us to reflect and appreciate our relative fortune, compared with the extreme suffering of previous generations. There are now no bombs devastating our countryside, no forced labour camps imprisoning our people, and no fresh mass graves filled with our best and brightest.

Yes, peace has come to Cambodia – but today’s peace is an imperfect, fragile, peace-for-some. While political leaders use this anniversary to loudly declare their achievements in bringing peace to Cambodia, we must remember that widespread and ongoing violations of human rights, the stifling of democratic space, and crackdowns on dissenting voices have become dark features of peacetime Cambodia.

Peace should not be described as merely the absence of war or violence, which is “negative peace”. It should also include communal harmony, socioeconomic cooperation and equal political representation in government for all citizens. These, along with good governance, which respects the rights of the people, constitute “the positive peace”, or rather peace building.

Today, we celebrate peace. Yet, we should ask, what peace is there for the family of Mao Sok Chan, the innocent bystander killed by security forces with impunity in September 2013? What peace is there for Khem Sophath, the 16-year old boy disappeared during a protest in January 2014, or the countless other victims of impunity in Cambodia?

What peace is there for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who find themselves landless and displaced, their homes and farmland granted as land concessions to the rich and well-connected, many of whom have robbed Cambodia of its natural resources for ruthless profit? Undoubtedly, there is peace-for-some in Cambodia: the well connected tycoons, political leaders, and their cronies live in quite perfect peace, without fear of arbitrary imprisonment, judicial harassment, and violence.

For those who dare to speak out, on the other hand – the activists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, land community leaders, and ordinary people expressing critical opinions online – there is no genuine peace.

With the commune and national elections coming up in 2017 and 2018, respectively, a systematic campaign to clamp down on dissent in all its forms is under way in Cambodia (as described in a recent publication by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights titledCambodia: Democracy Under Threat).

Oppressive laws that curtail human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the recently passed Law on Non-Governmental Organizations and Associations (LANGO), the draft Trade Union Law, and the proposed Cybercrime Law, are all examples of this trend, which has accellerated in recent months. At the same time, there has been a sharp increase in politically motivated arrests and convictions on spurious grounds.

Equally concerning is the threat that this fragile “peace” may not last. Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen has used every opportunity to publicly warn the people of Cambodia of “civil war”, should his party fail to win the next national election.

These warnings have been backed up by statements by senior military figures regarding their loyalty to the ruling party, and their commitment to suppressing any so-called “colour revolution”. Of course, these statements are orchestrated to strike fear into the hearts of a population that has been so deeply scarred by conflict.

Nonetheless, they cannot be perceived as empty threats, as the ruling elite of Cambodia have shown on many occasions that they are quite capable of significant violence in the name of securing power.

Peace, democracy and human rights are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. In a society where human rights are not respected, peace cannot exist, because true peace requires the space for peaceful expression, peaceful assembly, peaceful association and the peaceful enjoyment of all human rights.

If the current leaders of this country wish to be remembered as peacemakers, they must halt their campaign to curtail human rights, and allow democracy to flourish in Cambodia.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and a peace studies graduate from the International University of Japan.

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