Shadowing Burma

PHNOM PENH – “Second Aung Sang Suu Kyi, second Burma,” says a line in a local newspaper here. The first part of the phrase refers to opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, who like Burma’s famous Nobel Peace laureate is being harassed by the government, with the Cambodian Supreme Court just recently upholding her conviction in a defamation case filed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The second refers to Cambodia itself, a nation that, like its infamous ASEAN colleague, has leaders determined to hold onto power at all cost and who seem to have their own unique standard of human rights.

Last year, Burma and Cambodia even stood shoulder to shoulder in a face-off against the rest of ASEAN. The regional grouping was about to hold a forum with a multinational civil society coalition as part of its annual summit, but it hit a snag with the two nations’ sudden protest. Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen threatened to walk out of the forum should activists from their countries be allowed to take part. The two ASEAN leaders got their way, and the summit – and forum – pushed through. At the summit’s opening in Cha-am, Thailand, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared that ASEAN would be putting “people first – in its vision, its policies, and in its action plans”.

No one in the grouping seemed to notice the irony of his words, given what had just taken place. Activists, of course, saw it differently. And for once, their scathing comments included Cambodia, although the main targets remained to be Burma and ASEAN, which was poised to set up a human-rights body of its very own. Remarked Debbie Stothard of the right groups Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma: “Burma and Cambodia are trying to sabotage one of the most important ASEAN summits ever. We’re disappointed, but not surprised.”

“It’s unbelievable that powerful, oppressive ASEAN governments can’t bear to face their own people,” she added. “Hopefully, they will feel a deep sense of embarrassment.”

Cambodia (and other ASEAN members with questionable observance of human rights) actually has a lot to thank Burma for, if only because the latter’s sheer notoriety has a way of overshadowing the equally bad behaviour of the regimes in nearby nations. And yet, there was a time when the heavy-handed tactics used by Cambodia’s leaders against their rivals had not only attracted international attention, but even almost cost it a place in ASEAN.

This was already way after the atrocities committed by the dreaded Khmer Rouge during its short reign in Cambodia and sometime after the country’s rebirth, supposedly as a democracy. Scheduled to become ASEAN’s 10th member during the association’s 30th anniversary in 1997, Cambodia was made to wait two more years after bickering between two major political factions – each headed by one of the co-premiers – degenerated into violence that took the lives of several people and injured scores of others. Cambodia was told to put its political house in order first, a condition that was not welcomed at all by the country’s first prime minister, Hun Sen. But he grudgingly allowed general elections to be held in 1998, which were monitored by the so-called ‘ASEAN Troika’ that was made up of the foreign ministers of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand and formed especially to address the problem in Cambodia. The polls’ results were questioned by parties other than Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party or CPP. Nevertheless, these paved the way for the formation of a new coalition government later that year – just as ASEAN had wished.

That was the first – and so far the only – time that ASEAN had put its foot down and put pressure on a nation in the region regarding internal matters. Then again, Cambodia was not yet an ASEAN member at that point, which meant it was not yet covered by the group’s ‘non-intervention’ principle.

And so Cambodia finally became part of ASEAN in 1999. But while its membership in the regional grouping seems to have helped it gain credence in the international community, rights advocates and ordinary Cambodians themselves say ASEAN should be doing more to steer this Indochinese nation towards a better rights regime.

An image boost

At the very least, Cambodians are glad that their country is part of the association. Two students from the Royal University of Law and Economics here told this writer, “Our country has been isolated for decades by her own political turmoil, and now we don’t need to feel far away from the rest of the world as our country is a member of ASEAN.”

Poch Kongchheng, researcher at the Economic Institute of Cambodia, also said, “Cambodia joining ASEAN gives the message to the world that Cambodia… has stability and (a) strong political structure that is (suitable for) investors.”

At the same time, however, many Cambodians say ASEAN has yet to make a significant impact locally. Much of the population remain lacking in education and other basic services, largely because, activists and opposition political leaders say, government policies are unresponsive to people’s needs while state monies keep on getting “diverted” into a few choice pockets. According to some estimates, as much as $500 million is lost to corruption in Cambodia each year. It is no wonder then that development seems to be a largely unknown term in this hot, dusty nation, which still relies heavily on foreign aid to get by. Since 1996, Cambodia has received roughly $4 billion from international donors.

Twenty-two-year-old economics student Song Leakhena, referring to Cambodia’s economic outlook, commented, “I think that the gap between the rich and poor will be higher and higher because of corruption and lack of actions.” She indicated that ASEAN should be actively helping to change that, arguing that the group’s non-interference policy “shouldn’t be that way if we want to share the same values in our community”. Otherwise, she said, “this community won’t last long”.

It’s an opinion that is echoed even by outsiders, especially those who have been monitoring Cambodia’s observance of human rights and have found it wanting. In a letter this October to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Human Rights Watch said, “Cambodia’s respect for fundamental human rights and the process of democratisation continues its precipitous decline. As noted by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, the judiciary’s lack of independence reinforces Cambodia’s deeply entrenched impunity and fuels the government’s repression of basic rights, particularly rights to freedom of expression and association, land, and adequate housing. Politically motivated court judgments, such as the 10-year sentence handed down in absentia to opposition leader Sam Rainsy on 23 September for peaceful expression, cripple the political opposition’s ability to participate in upcoming elections. Community activists protesting forced evictions and ‘land grabbing’ face arrest and prosecution.”

“Arbitrary detention continues unabated, with the government refusing to close its abusive social protection centres, which often serve as little more than warehouses for police to deposit sex workers, alleged drug users, homeless children, families, and mentally ill people,” the international rights watchdog also said. “Currently, more than 2,000 people are arbitrarily detained in government drug detention centres, where they are subjected to torture (including electric shocks and whippings with electrical wire) and forced labour.”

Human Rights Watch went on to say that even the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) that has been putting former Khmer Rouge officials on the dock “will fail to leave a positive legacy unless it itself abides by international criminal justice standards”. According to the rights organisation, the body “has been plagued by political interference from the highest levels of government”.

Donors and diplomacy

Some foreign donors have also expressed similar concerns, which they raise regularly during their meetings with Cambodian officials. By comparison, Cambodia’s ASEAN colleagues have been publicly silent on the matter, although back-channeling has always been part and parcel of the group’s way of doing things.

Interestingly enough, Cambodia itself recently joined Indonesia in submitting a letter to Vietnam, ASEAN’s present chair, which called for an explanation from the Thai government regarding its April and May protests in Bangkok that had turned violent and bloody. Although the letter acknowledged that the matter was “internal”, it said that it was something that had an effect on the credibility and image of other ASEAN members.

The letter was undoubtedly unexpected within ASEAN. But observers have cautioned over over-reading it as the beginning of the end of the association’s non-intervention policy. Cambodia, after all, may have been prompted to send the missive by its ongoing dispute with Thailand over an ancient Khmer temple. As for Indonesia, which was said to have initiated the move, it was thought to be preparing for its forthcoming turn to chair ASEAN, where it wants to make a strong mark.

In any case, Chheang Vanarith, executive director of the Cambodia Non-partisan Research Institute, which is networking with the ASEAN Institute of Strategic and International Studies, thinks the people of ASEAN members like Cambodia would surely benefit if the group itself allowed more civil society participation. He pointed out, “What is the role of government and ASEAN if it is not for the citizens of the country and for the people of the region?”

He also said there should be “regional standards” that would benefit each and every ASEAN member. But he clarified: “Regionalism doesn’t mean that you accept him and her as a member of the family without asking him or her to change if and when needed to fit in the family….You can propose and oppose. If they cannot accept one or two principles, they have to implement the rest of the principles. (But) then in the next 10 or 20 years they (should) have implemented and consented to all the principles.”

Chheang Vanarith noted that ASEAN’s decision-making by consensus and its techniques of constructive dialogue and engagement have been mostly unsuccessful when it came to trying to convince a member-country to right internal missteps. He singled out Burma as a prime example of the failure of such methods, arguing that punishing a wayward member with expulsion or sanction would clearly be more effective.

To Naly Pilorge, director at the Cambodia League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights or Licadho, a simple human-rights awareness campaign may go farther in places like Cambodia than any diplomatic sleight of hand and gobbledygook. Speaking about Cambodia, she said, “The majority of people are still not aware of their rights as they have to mainly focus on their livelihood.” Tellingly, Licadho receives an average of 2,000 complaints regarding rights violations a year, with most of these cases involving rape, land grabbing, and domestic abuses.

Activists under siege

No doubt, rights advocates here need all the help they can get. According to Licadho, some 60 rights activists have been thrown in jail by authorities as of mid-July. That figure does not include Licadho staff member Leang Sokchouen, who just this August was meted a two-year prison sentence for disinformation. Reports say Leang Sokchouen had been caught distributing “anti-government” leaflets.

In a statement released several days after his sentencing, Licadho said, “Cambodian human rights defenders have faced an increasingly hostile environment over the past two years, enduring physical violence, illegal arrests, trumped-up criminal charges.”

Almost simultaneously, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) released their own statements that said that rights groups faced “shrinking space” in Cambodia. FIDH President Souhayr Belhassen also observed, “Time and again we see the same pattern – those who dare to speak out against injustice are arrested, imprisoned, and intimidated. The message to human rights defenders is clear: Be quiet, or the government will forcibly silence you.”

In the meantime, there is the ASEAN People’s Assembly (APA), which has gathered together activists across the region for an annual meeting since 2007. The idea, Chheang Vanarith said, is to “keep track of the leaders of ASEAN and stand up and speak out for the voiceless”.

But, he said, he had yet to see it have an impact on what he referred to as “ASEAN’s business”. – With additional reporting by Tatikarn Dechapong