Cambodia's New Climate of Fear

A new climate of fear has descended on Cambodia. And the world, as in the days of the Khmer Rouge, has largely looked the other way.
Blanquita Walsh Cullum
PHNOM PENH—A new climate of fear has descended on Cambodia. And the world, as in the days of the Khmer Rouge, has largely looked the other way.

Several arrests in recent weeks revealed a serious threat to the fragile press freedoms in the country and grave shortcomings in the judicial system. The stakes for this country could hardly be higher.

Failure to address these flaws would rob the Cambodian people of any meaningful reckoning with the leaders of the Khmer Rouge while they are still alive -- and a final chance at achieving justice for millions of Khmer Rouge victims.

Diplomats and human rights advocates noted a downturn on Oct. 11, when Cambodian police arrested Mam Sonando, director of the country's only independent radio station, Beehive FM, which carries programs from the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Radio France International. A Phnom Penh court charged Mam Sonando with defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen during a radio interview concerning Cambodia's border agreements with Vietnam.

Then came a defamation lawsuit against Sam Rainsy, the country's top opposition political leader, and more recently, the Dec. 31 arrests of two high-profile human-rights advocates, Kem Sokha and Yeng Virak.

Mam Sonando remains in a mosquito-infested cell packed with criminals, including three accused murderers. (His conditions improved slightly a few weeks ago when the number of his cellmates was reduced from 11 to seven.)

In contrast, Ta Mok, a Khmer Rouge military chief so notorious for ruthlessness he is known as "The Butcher" merits a relatively cushy cell with a desk and bed.

The police also arrested the president of the Cambodian teachers' association. He had criticized Hun Sen's handling of border negotiations with Vietnam. A cousin and aide to King Norodom Sihamoni and several others fled the country after arrest treats.

Hun Sen said publicly he would use the courts to prosecute anyone criticizing the government on the border issue. But curbs on the media appear to have expanded. In late November, the government barred state-run radio and television stations from reading newspaper stories on the air. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York recently reported that because of high illiteracy rates, most Cambodians get their news from the electronic media -- television or radio -- rather than newspapers. The ban on reading newspapers on-air deprives countless Cambodians of vital information.

It's easy to forget that 14 years ago, in 1991, all Cambodian factions agreed to stop fighting each other and create a United Nations transitional authority in Cambodia. In 1993, the country's royalists won U.N.-sponsored elections.

But Hun Sen's ex-communist Cambodian People's Party (CPP) refused to accept the election result and muscled its way back to power. Most Cambodian judges became subservient to Hun Sen, who has now hijacked the Cambodian legal system to suppress media that dare to differ with him.

If Cambodia's coming Khmer Rouge trial, in which Cambodian judges are to play a key role, is deemed a failure, any shred of faith the Cambodian people have in their judges will disappear.

But without a free press -- as symbolized by Mam Sonando -- it's virtually impossible to imagine the Cambodian judiciary can fulfill its historical obligation to its people.

Mam Sonando's case should be a red flag to the world that the advent of justice in Cambodia remains delayed. Every civilized government should demand it doesn't become justice eternally denied.

Blanquita Walsh Cullum, a member of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America, visited Phnom Penh at the end of November. The Cambodian authorities denied her request to visit Mam Sonando in prison. This piece was originally published in the Washington Times.


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