CAMBODIA: The Cambodian government should address problems rather than attacking people or organisations which have identified them

In January 2008, the Cambodian government set up a “quick response team” to counter opposition news media and foreign radio stations that publish information attacking it. The announcement of this new team has created fears that it will consolidate the government’s restriction on freedom of expression.

It is highly likely the new team will further help the government in its attack on sources who have identified and raised problems that affect its image. Attacking and denigrating such sources, with scant regard to the veracity of their reports of statements, instead of addressing those pertinent problems has now become an instrument of statecraft that the Cambodian leadership has routinely used as shown in some instances cited here.

On 20 February 2008, two international NGOs, Pact and Transparency International, issued a report on the results of their joint survey on corruption in Cambodia. The survey showed that Cambodia in the most corrupt country in the Asia-Pacific region, and the judiciary and police are the most corrupt institutions in Cambodia.

When asked for his opinion on the report, Om Yien Tieng, head of the government anti-corruption unit, chairman of the government human rights committee and a senior advisor to the prime minister, did not dispute the results of such a survey, but said that, “as the general elections are approaching”, if its authors “wish to help the opposition, they should help them directly and should not spend efforts to covertly do this or do that.”

On 13 February Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying that the US was disappointed about the pace of change in Cambodia. Rice told American lawmakers that the U.S. wanted to see more progress in that country.

In response to this US disappointment, Khieu Kanharith, Minister of information and spokesman for the Cambodian government charged that Ms Rice’s statement was based on wrong information. He claimed that such wrong information was the rootcause of American quagmire in Iraq, “because right from the very beginning America had received information from bad people”.

Khieu dismissed Rice’s statement by saying that “if Cambodia and its government have affected little change, it’s unlikely (the Cambodian government) has continuously won elections as it has.” He added that, “as the elections are near, there are people who have pushed her (to make such a statement). This is not a problem for us as she spoke as an outsider. The Cambodian people know a lot more than her.”  In Cambodia the next elections will be held in late July 2008.

Earlier on in January, without disputing its veracity, Khieu dismissed a report by an NGO named ADHOC depicting the government’s control on the civil society, its restriction on freedom of assembly and expression and its abuse of political rights. Referring to Kem Sokha, a former parliamentarian who became a human rights NGO leader and then founded a political party, Khieu said: “I don’t know if ADHOC is going to enter politics, as Kem Sokha has”.  Cambodia had not declined in freedom, he asserted, but was moving toward stronger rule of law.

In early February, in his comment on public protests staged by victims of land grabbing, Chum Bunrong, spokesman for the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes (NARLD) and member of the “quick response team” above, dismissed that “such protests that have happened once here, once there in the form of public demonstration or rally are genuine land disputes, but shows organised by people behind the scene in order to create instability in our society. If they were genuine land disputes or land grabbing, no one could ever have any sound sleep”.

The senior government officials cited above have followed the example of Prime Minister Hun Sen who has mastered the art of attacking authors of reports and statements giving a bad image to his government. Since 2006 Hun Sen has mounted continual attacks on the UN Secretary-General’s fourth special representative for human rights in Cambodia, Professor Yash Ghai from Kenya, for his public reports and statements critical of the human rights situation in Cambodia. That year he asked for Ghai’s sacking.

In December 2007 Ghai noted, among other things, the psychosis of fear among the Cambodian people, citing “fear of the state, fear of political and economic saboteurs, fear of greedy individuals and corporations, fear of the police and the courts.” He added that “state authorities, as well as companies and politically well-connected individuals, show scant respect for the rule of law” and that the courts and legal profession “have failed the people of Cambodia woefully.”

Hun Sen took Ghai’s remarks as an “insult” to the Cambodian people and government, and lashed out at him with diatribes, calling Ghai “deranged” and “a long-term tourist,” for instance. He also threatened to close the U.N. field office for human rights that assists the special representative, and asked for Ghai’s sacking again. Furthermore, Hun Sen urged the UN to spend the money for human rights in Cambodia elsewhere. In all his attacks on Ghai, Hun Sen did not dispute the veracity of his reports and statements.

In early August 2006, he lashed out at the director of the Economic Institute of Cambodia, Sok Hach, calling him an “ignorant scholar” after the institute had issued a report based on a survey revealing that corruption was prevalent in the collection of taxes. Because of this corruption, the report said, the government could only collect 25 percent of the taxes owed and lost about US$400 million in revenue in 2005.

Earlier in May, Hun Sen lashed out human rights activists who raised the issue of political affiliation of judges appointed to serve on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, when Cambodian judges were widely known to be affiliated with the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party, of which Hun Sen is the vice chairman. He branded these activists as being “perverted sex-crazed animals”.

It is time the Cambodian government appreciated the work of those people and organizations which help identify problems facing Cambodian society, gave due regard to the veracity of their reports and statements, and devoted its time and energy to address these problems instead of attacking and denigrating those people and organizations. It should consider them as part of the solution to the identified problems. Attacking and denigrating them not only violates freedom of expression but adds more problems to the ones they have identified and further enhances the psychosis of fear which already dominates Cambodian society.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-047-2008
Countries : Cambodia,