CAMBODIA: 'Aide-Toi, Le Ciel T’Aidera'
An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
It’s useful once in a while to recall that I am not a politician and have no desire to be one. I am not here to tell people what they like to hear nor to disparage. I believe in the principles and ideals of republicanism; and I write about subjects I believe I am qualified to discuss. Readers’ actions and reactions are their own. While disagreements can provide the fodder for healthy debate, those engaging in debate should not display arrogance or intolerance. Passionate opinion can be expressed with civility.
My last article, "Khmer diplomat dubs Hun Sen a fabricator of Khmer history," appeared on the day of the late Srey Pheach’s funeral, attended by so many. It brought e-mails from Pheach’s friends and acquaintances from different places and from Phnom Penh where sits the dictator against whom Pheach fought until his last breath.
Pheach’s writing was validated by a high ranking member of the Khmer elite in Phnom Penh, whose credibility I have never doubted. I knew him when he was in the thick of the political events examined in the article. He referred to my article as "the most well written true story of Cambodia’s bloody past by the late Srey Pheach."
But he also added to the story Pheach shared. My friend wrote that Pheach did not mention the cessation of US bombings in 1973, followed by the "fast reduction of US forces from Vietnam," which hardened the "stubborn position" of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese at the Paris conference. The war dragged on "for two more years until the total collapse of . . . Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam"; and though Prince Sihanouk was assured by the VC/NVN they would help him return to power, they "preferred to deal with the Khmer Rouge for tactical and political reasons rather than with the . . . too independent minded" Prince Sihanouk.
A week earlier, a former US foreign service officer who had been attached to the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, told me he rejected "the old leftist allegation that US bombing was responsible for causing many Cambodian peasants to join the Khmer Rouge . . . used as an excuse for the atrocities perpetrated by the KR, a sort of ‘the bombing made them do it.’" He reiterated, Cambodians joined "the fight" called by Prince Sihanouk because they thought it was to restore the monarchy, rather than to support the Khmer Rouge. "Those allegations that the bombing caused people to join the KR are not based on any clear evidence as far as I know," he wrote. "This is an idea concocted mostly by Western intellectuals who then attempted to attribute it to the Khmer peasants."
"Look to the open sky"
Today, a Khmer teacher I never met, a regular reader of these columns, e-mailed: "I have been missing you . . . I can think, I cannot talk in public. My friends always said (to me) don’t (talk), just look at the open sky…" He worries about his teaching job because he is critical of the culture of bribery in his school.
Two jobless university graduates who maintain e-mail communications with me complain that the regime sold their lands to others, and unwinnable court proceedings are keeping them busy.
Another email came from a Cambodian who was educated abroad but is now living in Phnom Penh: "Don’t think that everybody is in line with ‘chaul stung tarm bawt’. People here are just lying low for the right moment to burst into a violent flame and anger. They are keeping themselves quiet because they need security and time to educate and feed their family. People in the streets are complaining about the same story daily: The lack of justice, freedom of expression, violation of human rights, illegal land grabbing, unemployment, high cost of living, and endless other complaints…"
I couldn’t believe what I read from one close to the center of power. "(People) have feared those who ruled the country for so long whether under a kingdom, a republic, a bloody communist Democratic Kampuchea of Pol Pot, a Vietnamese-installed puppet (regime), or the current iron-fist dictatorship of Khmer-Vietminh."
Another correspondent is an ex-pat who lives in Phnom Penh. "The personality cult of and around Hun Sen, often with Bun Rany, has clearly taken over in recent years from eulogizing of royalty . . . For many of us, we just remember the last major bloodshed of (Hun Sen’s) calling in 1997, as well as the monotonous incessant suffering of poor Cambodians inflicted [sic] with Economic Land Concessions prominent of late."
It doesn’t seem that Cambodia is faring well from what the people above wrote.
UN warning of Cambodia’s return to violence
On September 10 through 28, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, an intergovernmental body of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, holds its 21st session. Among documents to be considered is A/HRC/21/63, "Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya P. Subedi."
The good news is, on September 25 when the UNHRC will examine Subedi's recommendations, Cambodian expatriates will rally in front of the UNHRC's headquarters in Geneva to request the organization's support for the report and urge the member states -- and through them their respective capitals -- to take action to implement the recommendations in order to protect the human rights of the Cambodian people.
One of only eight country-specific UN special rapporteurs in the world, Subedi, a Professor of International Law (Leeds University), and Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) described as his main task "to cast an impartial expert eye on the overall human rights situation in Cambodia and offer constructive advice . . . to address the problems that exist with regard to the overall situation in the country."
His report, a must read, says it is "regrettable" that most recommendations by bilateral and multilateral agencies to reform Cambodia’s electoral process "remain unimplemented" by the government; notes the high human cost of Cambodia’s economic land concessions on people's rights, noting in particular the forced evictions at Boeung Kak lake and Borei Keila; and warns that "If the electoral process is unable to command the trust and confidence of the electorate . . . the country may run the risk of a return to violence."
He lists "major flaws" in the administration of elections by Cambodia’s National Election Committee that organizes and manages polls.
A "particular stake and responsibility"
Subedi acknowledges improvement in Cambodia’s overall human rights situation, but, "There remains, however, much to be done to fulfill the obligation of Cambodia under the international human rights treaties it has ratified."
He accepts that political stability is needed for economic development, "but stability should be founded on fairness, equity, transparency, legitimacy and a level of playing field to enable all political actors to make an equitable contribution to the country’s governance." He calls on the government, the NEC, and the provincial election committees to "ensure conformance to international standards before, during and after the casting of votes."
Subedi’s report notes, "The Paris Peace Agreements established the rule of law, human rights and democracy as major pillars of the new political architecture for the country. Accordingly, the peace process cannot be regarded as complete until the democratic institutions created under the Constitution are able to work effectively and independently. The international community has a particular stake and responsibility in this regard."
Cambodian government’s response
Subedi’s report won praise from opposition officials and nongovernmental organizations, but Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government rejects it as an inaccurate reflection of the true situation of Cambodia’s human rights.
Cambodia’s human rights committee chief Om Yin Tieng accused Subedi of political bias and suggested he work as advisor to the opposition instead; Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan branded the report "outdated"; and a government press release claimed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has not only "promoted the rights and dignity of the people" but has carried out agreements and conventions conforming to national and international laws.
Yet early this month, plain-clothes police officers arrested Boeung Kak community activist Ms. Yorm Bopha, 29, for committing "intentional violence" – without specifying what – and imprisoned her at Prey Sar. A day after, 65-year-old Ms. Tim Sakmony who has been sleeping for months under a staircase at Borei Keila, was arrested and sent to Prey Sar prison for incitement.
In early August, a Joint Open Letter signed by 34 Civil Society members called for the dismissal of Phnom Penh Deputy Police Chief Phuong Malay for his "unacceptable, facetious and offensive" remarks concerning Ms. Bov Srey Sras, a pregnant protester who was "brutally mistreated" by police officers in a clash, causing her to lose her baby. Malay's words were quoted on the front page of the Phnom Penh Post: "Is the victim old or young, and does she sue me to return her kid? I want to tell her that if she wants to get back her kid, I am also young."
In mid-July, the 70-year-old director of independent Beehive Radio and president of Cambodia’s Democrat Association, Mam Sonando, was arrested by 20 police officers on direct orders of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who accused Sonando of leading a secessionist movement and a subversive plot to overthrow his government.
Ill and held in prison without bail, Sonando has been a critic of the government-imposed forced evictions and illegal land grabbing. It is believed Sonando was arrested because of a Beehive Radio broadcast about the complaint at the International Criminal Court at The Hague by Suon Serey Ratha, head of the Khmer People Power Movement, charging Prime Minister Hun Sen with crimes against humanity.
Late last month, Luke Hunt wrote in The Diplomat, "Accusations of a secessionist movement were linked to a long-running land dispute in Kratie involving a Russian company, Casotim, which won a 15,000-hectare economic land concession." Hunt referenced "hundreds of armed police and military personnel" storming Pro Ma village, evicting "a thousand families living in the concession (area). The authorities opened fire and killed 14-year-old (Ms) Heng Chantha when the villagers refused to leave . . . police arrested a number of villagers and alleged they were secessionists," whom the government accused of plotting with Mam Sonando.
As national and international rights groups urged the government to release Sonando, a statement by the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia reads, "The allegation that the villagers were trying to secede has been widely ridiculed as a fabrication, and there is consequently little reason to see the related charge against Mam Sonando in any other light."
Hunt concluded, "given the government’s track record on human rights, such a release remains highly unlikely."
But, anything is possible in Cambodia.
A revealing clue?
Seizing upon Subedi’s report, the US-based Khmer People Network for Cambodia wrote to the special rapporteur on the necessity to implement Subedi’s recommendations: The "forceful and immediate implementation of the ‘recommendations’" would yield "a drastic reform" of the NEC that would "guarantee free and fair election in 2013 and after." The KPNC praised Dr. Subedi’s report.
Subedi expressed gratitude for the KPNC’s appreciation of his work and, "I will continue to do my utmost to promote and protect human rights in Cambodia." Subedi, who writes in his report about a "particular stake and responsibility" of the international community, can do no more to compel sovereign independent states to implement the Paris agreements on Cambodia.
I, too, applaud Dr. Subedi’s commitment to promote and protect human rights in Cambodia. He may be thanked for his diligence at the risk of being barred from future entry to Cambodia. We can hope that will not be the case.
Politics and Law
International politics can be very ugly. A state’s foreign policy course of action is dictated by its leader’s assessment of what is in the country’s national interest. Foreign policy decision-making is determined by international and domestic possibilities and constraints – the nature of the international system and the country’s political culture and subnational actors, including the powerful special interest groups.
On the other hand, the body of rules and principles that serves as a guide in sovereign independent states’ interactions with one another has lacked effective international enforcement mechanisms. A law is useless when it is not implemented.
I am reminded of a long-ago Isareli ambassador to the United States who, in 1957, described a popular belief in the nature of law this way: "International law is the law which the wicked do not obey and which the righteous do not enforce."
"There is a stirring in Cambodia for change," writes a friend, a British ex-pat in Cambodia; "Unfortunately the elite in Cambodia will not give up or share power without bloodshed." My friend asked cynically, "What hope is there when the National Election Committee is to have its new HQ built by Nagacorps . . . that already dwarfs the National Assembly?" "My country, the UK, is just intent on trade now, not upsetting Hun Sen over human rights abuses or corruption!," he wrote.
Le ciel t’aidera
Next month will be the twenty-first anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements. It’s a safe bet that Cambodian expatriates will gather to commemorate the Agreements and appeal for their implementation – an annual expression of dependency.
Yet, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s autocracy is not destined to last. No government under this sun can last without the support of the people. The Hun Sen regime is not without some popular support, but many, perhaps a majority, loathe the regime. Foreign governments near and far are not blind to the situation in Cambodia. They are watching and analyzing what may replace this autocracy. Why jump from the frying pan into the fire?
Thus, the 70 percent of Cambodians who are below the age of 30 must be won over by democracy activists. These activists must show their political muscle through demonstrations of their vision, organizational skills, and their popularity if they are to gain support from governments that are already sympathetic to their cause. They need to show their unity and creativity, and present themselves as a credible alternative to the existing dictatorship. They need to show greater success at the ballot box in the forthcoming election in 2013. Then things will begin to change. The French say, Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera – Help yourself and Heaven will help you.
Change requires Cambodians to shrug off their fossilized attitudes; to practice what their Lord Buddha has taught: to do all good, avoid all evil, and purify the mind; and to initiate nonviolent action to end the autocracy that has inflicted untold suffering on the people of Cambodia.
We need international support – which will come when Cambodian democrats have proven themselves able to assimilate that support and execute a plan of action to establish a free and fair government in Cambodia.
The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.
About the Author:
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.