On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords that ended Cambodia’s war with Vietnam and pointed the way toward a modern state, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to the country urged the nation’s leaders to bury the past.
Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, said on Wednesday that her 10-day tour showed a “very different” nation than the one that struggled to throw off the bloody Khmer Rouge, find peace with its neighbor, and, at least on paper, establish a democracy. But she also saw a government that is too willing to live in the past.
“The time for the government to blame the troubles of the last century for the situation today is surely over,” she wrote in a statement at the end of her official fact-finding mission.
“Cambodia has earned its place on the international stage as an equal sovereign state and, as such, the government must take responsibility for implementing at the national and [local] levels all those rights and freedoms in the treaties it has so willingly ratified,” she wrote.
While the accords marked the official end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War in 1991, allowed Cambodia to implement a new constitution and hold elections, Cambodia is embroiled in an ongoing political crises that has seen government critics mysteriously killed, opposition party members thrown in jail and a poor record on human rights.
On Oct. 10 as Smith was beginning her fact finding tour, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court jailed opposition party lawmaker Um Sam An for two years and six months and security forces attacked demonstrators protesting land grabs in Cambodia.
And despite repeated calls for a more open government, Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be in no hurry to share power with anyone outside of his family and trusted members of his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
While the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is hoping to hold a gathering in the capital on the Oct. 23 holiday marking the signing of the peace agreement, the full promise of the accords still appears to remain just out of reach.
“I think there are still elements of the Paris peace agreement which have not yet been fully delivered upon, particularly those related to ensuring free and full elections, human rights and a strong judiciary empowered to give effect (to) and enforce those human rights accepted by the country,” Smith told reporters after wrapping up her mission.
The Cambodian judicial system still lacks independence, while rights workers, opposition politicians and outside observers see the courts as a tool for Hun Sen to exact retribution on his political enemies.
‘Laws applied without discrimination’
Rarely do CPP politicians face charges, but the list of CNRP and other opposition lawmakers dragged before the courts is long and includes party president Sam Rainsy and deputy leader Kem Sokha, as well as opposition lawmakers like Um Sam An and Meach Sovannara.
Sam Rainsy has been living abroad off and on for years as Hun Sen’s government has charged him with a number of offenses that observers inside and outside Cambodia see as politically motivated.
Kem Sokha is under virtual house arrest since police attempted to arrest him in May for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in a pair of defamation cases related to an alleged affair with a hairdresser.
Meach Sovannara was given a 20-year sentence for taking part in a protest in Phnom Penh in late 2014. He and 10 other activists were jailed on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site in the capital.
Um Sam An is serving a two-year-and-six-month jail term for inciting discrimination and inciting social instability.
“It’s imperative that the laws are applied without discrimination on any grounds including political beliefs and opinions, and that the same evidentiary requirements are applied to all charges and therefore are the basis for all convictions,” Smith said. “There’s a need to strengthen consistency and reasoning in all cases in Cambodia.”
That consistency and reasoning is severely lacking, said Cambodian Center for Human Rights Executive Director Chak Sopheap.
“Many human rights defenders who are often involved with helping people with land disputes; community representatives who protest for inhabitants’ rights; people who express their opinions on the internet; opposition members who criticize the border issues; and environmental protection activists have been arrested and sentenced to prison by the courts,” she said during The International Conference on Paris Peace Accords, held in Phnom Penh on Oct. 19.
“Analysts who dare to openly and directly criticize Cambodia’s social maladies are shot and killed in the heart of the capital city,” she added.
In July, popular government critic Kem Ley was shot and killed when he stopped in a Star Mart convenience store beside a Caltex gas station in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
In 2004 Chea Vichea, the leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), was shot in the head and chest early in the morning while reading a newspaper at a kiosk in Phnom Penh.
Also in 2004 Ros Sovannarith, a labor activist at a major textile factory, was killed in 2004 when unidentified gunmen shot him twice as he rode his motorbike near Phnom Penh University.
Three years later Hy Vuthy, a senior leader of the FTUWKC, was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle while heading home from a Phnom Penh garment factory.
Peace and stability
While the record looks bleak, Smith did see some bright spots.
“It has seen a period of relative peace and stability in this country which has benefited many, but not all Cambodians,” she said. “There’s much that is positive and that is worth celebrating.”
That was a point that government officials emphasized, saying that there is too much focus on the political battles between the ruling party and the opposition.
“One should not evaluate the human rights situation in Cambodia by just focusing on the political issue,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon said in a statement as he claimed the nation has a relatively free press.
“Cambodia ranks first with the most ‘freedom of the press’ among the ASEAN countries,” he said.
While Cambodia does rank ahead of most of its neighbors for press freedom, it still sits at 128 of 180 nations in the 2016 Reporters Without Borders survey of press freedom.
While the CNRP wants to celebrate, it’s unclear if they will be given permission as the government has failed to give the party a permit to use Freedom Park for its fete.
Phnom Penh city government spokesperson, Mean Chanyada told RFA that city hall decided to forward the CNRP request to the Ministry of Interior because of the size of the celebration.
Senior CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay told RFA that the party will stick to its plans.
“It is not the responsibility of the Phnom Penh city hall to grant or not grant permission to demonstrate,” he said. “The organizer is just required to inform the city government.”
Freedom Park has often been the location for protests against Hun Sen’s government.
In 2009 the government officially designated the square as a place where Cambodians could express themselves freely, but it has often been closed to anti-government protestors.
The park was the site when at least 16 people were killed and more than 150 injured in a grenade attack that came as Sam Rainsy and his supporters gathered there in 1997 to denounce the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence and its corruption.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.