Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Category: Social Politics (page 1 of 6)

Standing with civil society in Cambodia

People protest at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this month after members of civil society were detained and charged.

People protest at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this month after members of civil society were detained and charged. Pha Lina
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 11 May 2016)

Nearly 25 years ago, history was made with the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which aimed to put an end to years of devastating conflict in Cambodia. The agreements were thought to signal a new era for a peaceful Cambodia, laying the foundations for building a Cambodia that was just and democratic, and which respected human rights and the rule of law.

Two years later, under the guidance of the United Nations, Cambodia’s first constitutionally elected government assumed power. During the elections, polls were open for six days, yet 42 per cent of the voters cast their votes on the first day – almost 2.1 million Cambodians.

Against all odds – torrential rain, and a campaign of threats and violence from the remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other armed groups – people were hopeful about the prospect of peace and democracy in their country. Almost 90 per cent of the population voted.

But did we achieve the democracy we were promised? If we ever did have it, it is undoubtedly now under severe threat given the recent attacks on civil society.

A cornerstone of any democracy and a crucial factor in ensuring respect for human rights is the fostering of a strong, independent civil society. This was something that was specifically guaranteed by both the government and international partners in the Paris Peace Agreements.

As part of the agreements, it was stated that Cambodia will endeavour to “ensure respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” and “support the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities that would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Moreover, as part of this historic agreement, the eighteen countries and the UN who are also signatories, promised “to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia as embodied in the relevant international instruments in order, in particular, to prevent the recurrence of human rights abuses”.

Since the Paris Peace Agreements were signed, human rights organisations have undertaken vital work to promote and protect the human rights of all Cambodians, while providing assistance to countless victims of rights abuses. In the past, Cambodia has even been praised for having a relatively vibrant civil society, showing how far we have come.

However, current events threaten the progress made in this area, and give cause to reflect on the vital role of a free civil society in Cambodia as well as on whether sufficient actions have been taken by those who promised to help uphold it. Recent weeks have seen the rapid deterioration of the already fragile state of affairs for Cambodian human rights defenders, independent political commentators and activists.

Too many are being judicially harassed and denied their rights to liberty, freedom of expression and a fair trial. Young people are being jailed for harmless statements posted on social media platforms. Citizens peacefully defending their land and natural resources against exploitation are being arrested, threatened and even killed, while the perpetrators of such violence enjoy impunity.

Laws – such as the NGO Law and Trade Union Law – are being introduced that can too easily be wilfully misinterpreted and applied to curtail freedoms, and groups’ rights to assemble and protest against such developments are being further curtailed.

All Cambodians want to see reforms that will improve their livelihoods, security and wellbeing, and if the government is to achieve its goals of a better Cambodia, independent civil society should be seen a key partner, not an enemy. Our leaders should recall the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 and the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution, and collaborate with civil society.

The responsibility upon the international community to ensure that human rights are respected in Cambodia also remains to this day. After the 2013 elections, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia at the time acknowledged this continuing responsibility.

Now, it should be reiterated in light of the recent visit of the person currently assuming this role, Rhona Smith. Smith reported concern at the deteriorating situation she witnessed during her visit, describing the Cambodia she saw as being on the brink of a “dangerous tipping point”.

Of course, Cambodia has not returned to the horrors of its past, and hopefully it never will. But that cannot be a benchmark for success now. Today’s Cambodia does not compare well with the picture of a free and democratic country envisioned in the Paris Peace Agreements.

And if that vision is to be realised, greater responsibility is required from the government in safeguarding the freedoms set out in our Constitution and international instruments. In particular, the government needs to recognise the important role of a vibrant civil society in Cambodia and it would be prudent for the authorities to work with us towards our common goal – the good of all Cambodians.

Cambodia is long overdue the basic tenets of a liberal democracy – unrestricted civil society, free and fair elections, rule of law, and an independent judiciary.

Global civil society, international actors and all those who signed the Paris Peace Agreements also need to take action, to assist Cambodian civil society and the government to work together to ensure the Kingdom steps back from the brink and continues on a path towards a better future.

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

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.

When Justice is a Prisoner

Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pov

Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pov speaks from inside a police truck as it enters Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month. Heng Chivoan
Fri, 6 June 2014

In January, the government engaged in a violent crackdown on growing labour and opposition protests in and around Phnom Penh, resulting in the death of five people. Military forces and police also beat up protesters, and arrested 23 of them over the course of two days. Those arrested, including four prominent human rights defenders, are now known as “the 23”. The violence and arbitrary nature of their arrests, their five-month detention and the recent court verdicts finding them guilty illustrate the intolerance of the government towards anyone threatening its economic interests or its legitimacy.

Last Friday, judges announced the 23 had all been found guilty of acts of violence and related charges, and sentenced them to between one and four and a half years’ imprisonment. However, all sentences were suspended and the 23 were released the same day, in part due to growing pressure from international brands, international unions and international and local civil society. Brands such as H&M, Gap and Levi Strauss are important buyers for Cambodian factories and represent crucial economic interests, with the garment industry’s exports exceeding $4 billion in the first nine months of 2013 alone.

While it was heart-warming to see the mothers, fathers, wives and friends of the 23 cry with relief after learning that their loved ones would be set free and reunited with their families, their release should not overshadow the core issue that these verdicts represent and that is symptomatic of Cambodia’s judiciary: a lack of independence used by the government as a tool to suppress opposition voices.

The conviction comes after an obviously biased trial. Violations of the 23’s right to a fair trial were seen at every stage of the process, from the impunity with which security forces killed and injured protesters in January to the very courtroom in which a judge took on the role of prosecutor. During the five days of trials, no incriminatory evidence was presented and the defendants’ rights to a fair trial were repeatedly violated. Judges turned into prosecutors, blatantly assuming the guilt of defendants, qualifying protesters as “gangsters”, preventing defence lawyers from presenting evidence and censoring defendants’ testimonies. In light of the conduct of the hearing, there was no doubt regarding the political nature of the case: the 23 were in jail to set an example and to dissuade workers from protesting against an industry from which government officials and members of the elite greatly benefit.

The only thing the 23 could be found guilty of is having exercised their freedom of assembly, guaranteed by the constitution. Today they are free, but they remain guilty in the eyes of the court. The verdict illustrates that despite a lack of evidence, the judiciary could not openly dismiss the arrests made by security forces and instead handed down suspended sentences. The suspended sentences also now represent a constant threat hanging over their heads, while the five months they spent in prison stand as a reminder to anyone who protests of the risks they are taking. The happiness of seeing them free should not divert Cambodians or the international community from the reality of this verdict.

It is no secret that the judiciary in Cambodia is not independent and is partial to the interests of the elite and the government. It is not a tool for justice but rather a tool to suppress dissident voices. The government’s control of the judiciary will be further reinforced, as only a few weeks ahead of the verdict, the National Assembly adopted three laws “reforming” the judiciary.

The laws, which had been gathering dust for years, were rushed through a one-party assembly and adopted after only two days, despite repeated calls for consultation by the UN and civil society. Leaked drafts of the laws revealed that they will not reform the judiciary in a manner that would strengthen its independence as we had all hoped. Instead, they will reinforce the influence of the executive branch over the judicial and grant direct powers to the Ministry of Justice over the judiciary to advance and promote judges and prosecutors, control expenses and discipline judges.

If the judiciary were truly independent, the security forces responsible for beating up and arbitrarily arresting the 23 would be investigated as well. However, while the 23 stood trial and were convicted, not one military or police officer has been investigated or even simply questioned about the violence in January. The 23 are now free, but justice remains prisoner to the political manipulations and intimidations of the ruling party.

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

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