Cambodia reappeared in the international news after a series of arrests and a high profile sentence on an opposition party leader.
Both the Director, Kem Sokha and the deputy director, Pa Nguon Teang, of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights have been arrested by the police this week. This follows arrests of several other human rights activists including Yeng Vireak (also allied to the same centre). The charge against them is the same- defamation. These activists had displayed a banner (in a rally to mark the International Human Rights Day in December), allegedly accusing the Prime Minister Hun Sen of selling Cambodian land to Vietnam. (PM Hun Sen had signed an unpopular agreement with Vietnam settling a border demarcation issue in October 2005). 5 others had fled the country before they could be arrested.
In December 2005, the Cambodian court had sentenced self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to 18 months imprisonment. While Sam Rainsy had appealed to King Sihamoni to pardon all those charged or in jail, he undermined the appeal by accusing the Cambodian government of moving towards dictatorship. He also accused China and Vietnam of supporting the Cambodian government in delaying the Khmer Rouge Trials to avoid exposing the role played by China in the Khmer Rouge era.
The response from the international community has been rather predictable- condemnation of the Cambodian government. For instance, a NGO, Human Rights Watch, has warned that the Cambodian government is following the Burmese model and urged donors to make clear at the next annual donor meeting that any infringement of civil rights and freedom of expression would have consequences. Given that half of Cambodia’s government annual budget is from the donor community, the Cambodian government might be forced to respond.
Would Cambodia be another Myanmar- eventually ostracized and becoming a stumbling block between the relationship between ASEAN and other foreign governments, particularly the US and EU?
Taking a contrarian view, a former ambassador (from a ASEAN member country) to Cambodia pointed out that beyond the politicking, one-upmanship, infighting and factionalism, there has been some progress made in Cambodia. He pointed to the increasing number of more educated and competent young politicians and technocrats who are able to tackle the various complicated problems faced in Cambodia. While the issue of Sam Rainsy might be of concern to the international human rights organizations and some foreign governments, Rainsy’s party has already lost credibility in the group that matters the most- the Cambodian people.
What is the real situation now? It is perhaps too early to tell. However, Cambodia’s internal political problems should be closely watched by ASEAN leaders. ASEAN already has the issue of Myanmar to handle. They cannot afford to let Cambodia be another diplomatic issue.
- Cambodia Charges Another Activist, (BBC News, 5 Jan)
- Cambodia’s Fledging Democracy Under Attack as Government Rounds up Critics (AP, 4 Jan)
- Sam Rainsy Accuses China, Vietnam (BBC News, 3 Jan)
- Cambodia On Path to ‘Burmese Model’, Human Rights Watch Warns (Japan Economic Newswire, 3 Jan)
- Phnom Penh’s Political Winners and Losers, (New Straits Times, 2 Jan) Cambodian Human Rights Chief Hit with Defamation Charge (Japan Economic Newswire, 31 Dec)