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Cambodia: The Future Awaits

AHRC-ETC-039-2013
December 2, 2013

An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

CAMBODIA: The future awaits

In one week, from Nov 18 to Nov 25, the much talked about plan of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders to hold two mass demonstrations in Phnom Penh, one on Human Rights Day on December 10 "for all people who have suffered human rights abuses," the other on an unspecified date but promised to be a larger demonstration to last longer than one day and include "marches" through Phnom Penh streets, has changed.

The CNRP will still hold its mass demonstration on Human Rights Day, but the venue will not be Phnom Penh but Siem Reap City, about 200 miles to the northwest, where stand the world famous Angkor Wat ruins. It may include marches from the City to Angkor, a distance of about 6 miles, and back. The purposes are to demand an investigation into the shooting death of 49-year-old street vendor Ms. Eng Sokhum by police on Nov 12 during an SL Garment factory protest; and to (again) demand a joint Cambodian People's Party-CNRP independent committee to investigate alleged election irregularities and fraud during the July 28 national election – a demand rejected by the CPP as soon as it was formulated. The opposition claims it has been robbed of a victory: The government-appointed National Election Commission gave the ruling party 68 parliamentary seats and the CNRP 55. The CNRP said, had the election been free and fair, it would have won 63 parliamentary seats and the CPP only 60.

There have been impressive mass demonstrations in which men, women, the young, the old, and increasingly active and vocal Khmer Buddhist monks have participated, in spite of the Hierarchical Buddhist Order's instructions to its monks to stay away. Protesters assert that they did not vote for the ruling party, so how could the CPP win and what has happened to their votes.

There has not been a popular rally of equal size and intensity in support of the ruling party. One can imagine that dueling protests would likely end in violence.

Blessing in Disguise?

The Cambodia Daily reported that CNRP vice president Kem Sokha explained that the change in venue was to prevent the CPP from using CNRP's demonstration plans as an excuse to derail other CNRP mass rallies to be held at Freedom Park on Dec 15 and every Sunday after.

The change should spare Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party from headaches on Dec 10 when Phnom Penh should be crowded with large numbers of demonstrators from different groups with different agendas.

Evidently concerned about proliferating protests, some occurring near his home, in today's politically and emotionally charged atmosphere, Hun Sen has canceled for two successive years the annual Bon Om Touk boat racing festival. The festival, which occurs annually in November, celebrates the end of the rainy season and the reversal of water flow from the Tonle Sap Great Lake onto the Mekong and Bassac Rivers. The festival can bring one to two million people from across Cambodia to Phnom Penh for three days and three nights. Too risky.

Nevertheless, Ath Thorn, head of the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) that led the SL Garment Factory strike where a street vendor was killed, maintained his "plan to march 5,000 workers" through Phnom Penh streets as the CCAWDU does every year on Human Rights Day. But the CCAWDU doesn't have on its agenda an investigation of the shooting death of the street vendor, nor an investigation of election irregularities and fraud. Rather, the union seeks salary increases for its employees, improvement in meal allowances, severance pay, a stop to short-term work contracts and ongoing problems at the SL factory.

Last year, several other workers' unions and non-governmental organizations also held rallies on Human Rights Day at Freedom Park. They are expected to do the same this year. "Phnom Penh would be so crowded on that day," wrote a young political blogger in the capital. "The day will be peaceful or not depends on whether the authorities choose to facilitate traffic for marchers or to block Phnom Penh streets for protesters," he said.

The CPP says it has no problem with peaceful demonstrations to express political will or freedom of expression, but "to occupy public assets and roads is illegal." During previous protests, as authorities blocked streets with barricades, protesters dismantled them and clashes ensued. Well-disciplined nonviolent mass rallies have kept protests relatively peaceful thus far. There is no certainty of peace when police carrying guns with live ammunition confront crowds of determined and fearless protesters.

UN Human Rights in Cambodia

Sixty-five years ago, on December 10, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Paris as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." In the Declaration, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights" and "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration." In 1950, December 10 was proclaimed Human Rights Day.

Five months after Cambodia's UN-supervised first elections in July 1993, the UN General Assembly created the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on December 20, 1993 to represent the world's commitment to universal ideals of human dignity, to promote and protect all human rights. The High Commissioner is the principal UN official for human rights.

Until 2008 the Cambodia human rights mandate was held by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for human rights (SRSG), an appointee of the UN Chief. After 2008, the functions of the Special Representative were given to an independent expert, the Special Rapporteur, who receives no salary from the UN nor works for any government or interest group, and is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council "for the further improvement of the situation of human rights" in Cambodia.

The first Special Representative for human rights in Cambodia was Michael Kirby of Australia (1993-1996), followed by Thomas Hammarberg of Sweden (1996-2000), Peter Leuprecht of Austria (2000-2005), and Yash Ghai of Kenya (2005-2008). From 2008 until today, Surya Subedi of Nepal, a practicing Barrister and Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds, elected unanimously in March 2009, became the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia.

Professor Subedi's reports and recommendations on human rights in Cambodia remain a major focus of contention between the ruling CPP and the CNRP. The latter considers Subedi's work fundamental to the success of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements that ended the long armed conflicts among the four warring Khmer factions; and that promised human rights and democratic pluralism in Cambodia. Hun Sen and the CPP insist Cambodia is a sovereign state that will not accept direction from any outsider.

The UDHR's preamble observes, "it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."

It is wise for Hun Sen and CPP thinkers to heed the warning.

Along with today's article, I am also posting a PowerPoint entitled "A New Challenge to Hun Sen," with carefully selected photos available in the public domain, accompanied by a Khmer song from my own generation, illustrating that despite severe police crackdowns, mass protests have continued, and protesters are united in their fearless demand for change. The photos should remind Cambodians and international actors of the ongoing economic and social inequities that are rampant in Cambodia, despite the world's investment of $3 billion to complete the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 that envisioned a different future for Cambodia.

Opposition CNRP leaders and today's protesters are feeding into one another. As last week's Bangkok Post's "Cambodian Crusader" quoted Sam Rainsy, "We will continue to push for an election investigation, no matter how long it would take. We will continue to fight and we believe that in the end the truth will prevail."

Ph'do, Change

It is human nature to yearn for freedom, justice and dignity, necessary for peace and stability.

In today's Cambodia, men and women, young and old, have developed an impressive political maturity as they engaged with like-minded compatriots in the streets to determine their future.

There are those who may not comprehend fully what change entails. They like what they hear: freedom, justice, rule of law, democracy, among others. They imagine how they would benefit in such a society. Say what one will, many Cambodians know what they don't want. Even the traditionally apolitical Khmer Buddhist monks are now active and engaged. Their Lord Buddha had taught more than 2,500 years ago, "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may"; and "Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most."

In other words, a Buddhist man and woman learned they are masters of their own destiny. As Buddha says, "We are what we think," and "He is able who thinks he is able."

And comes opposition leader Sam Rainsy who thinks Cambodia is at a turning point with "ingredients" that would put Cambodia in a position for change: "the mass of young people, high unemployment, extreme poverty, injustice, corruption, the rising usage of social media..."

The Future?

I wrote in my last article that I see the current CPP ship sailing in similar way and in similar current as the Khmer Republic ship did. The latter sank.

CNRP leaders believe time and popular support are on their side, and mass rallies are the best tactic to pressure the government for change. Seizing on popular discontent, CNRP leaders keep the flame of hope burning. They assure the people, who need assurances, there will be change. In fact, life is a succession of changes, a series of choices.

I don't doubt that election irregularities and fraud were perpetrated by the ruling party on July 28th. Nor did I expect the CPP to agree to an independent review of assertions of election fraud.

I am astounded that despite the writing on the wall, despite losing one quarter of their parliamentary seats in an election the party rigged in its favor, Hun Sen and associates are not on the road to national healing and arrogantly deny the opposition a share of political power.

I am equally astounded that CNRP leaders choose to continue the figurative political Ramvong circle dance, going round and round with no discernable end, adamantly using mass rallies to overturn the current election results as they have left vacant their party's rightful seats in the National Assembly for more than four months. They have missed opportunities to use the institution to forge change and as a forum to alert and gather international attention and support. The "CNRP will continue mass protests as long as we do not get what we demand: Justice for the voters," affirms CNRP MP-Elect Mu Sochua. Meanwhile, Hun Sen and the CPP continue to govern with half of the National Assembly empty, and foreign governments that urge Cambodia to investigate election irregularities continue to deal as usual with the Phnom Penh government.

The CNRP and Cambodian democrats cannot win the international community's sympathy and support for their cause or ensure more effective implementation of the Paris Peace Agreements by continuing to demonize Vietnam and Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia. We live in an era in which Americans and Europeans promote multicultural and ethnic integration in a borderless world. Cambodians must not allow them to imagine Khmers as racists.

As this column is being composed, on Nov 26, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha dropped the other shoe: If the CPP continues to refuse calls for an independent investigation into the July 28 election irregularities and fraud, at the scheduled December 15 mass demonstration – in which a hoped for 300,000 protesters will participate – the CNRP will demand a new election. That demand will be reiterated, Sokha says, at rallies every subsequent Sunday.

The CNRP makes clear it will engage in talks with the CPP only if the agenda includes an independent investigation, the resignation of the government-appointed members of the National Election Commission, and implementation of recommendations from the UN Special Rapporteur and NGOs on electoral and other reforms.

Hun Sen and his associates are under pressure. I don't think they will agree to a new election, and they will certainly not vacate power. Not now. It is possible they could reconsider sharing power in the National Assembly with a formula acceptable to the opposition.

I would not be surprised if CNRP supporters, especially expatriates abroad, will threaten to withdraw support from Sam Rainsy and the CNRP should the opposition agree to power sharing. But I trust the leadership knows what's best for the nation's supreme interest.

A critic questions my contention that Hun Sen and associates will be out of power in five years. Let me repeat my thought: I doubt Hun Sen and associates will be able to regain respect and trust from Cambodians. But, just as the CNRP and Cambodian democrats have five years to show Hun Sen and the CPP the door, the CPP also has five years to make a rebound, to take advantage of their electoral strength and win the people's trust. If the CPP is able to regain its dominance legitimately, the democrats will have squandered this singular opportunity.

The bottom line is that a government is able to rule when the people over whom it rules accept it as legitimate and its rule as rightful. Elections are one way to show popular support. When the people deny a government their support, governance is compromised and the circumstances are ripe for political change.

Five years can be an eternity under oppression. But five years is hardly enough time for Cambodian democrats to educate, train, and develop thousands of leaders. The CNRP must make use of this time. Develop a broad-based leadership corps; orient new leaders from all levels of government toward nation-building.

Think. Imagine something new and create. And act smart. Recall Albert Einstein's definition: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The future awaits.

ENDS

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.

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