Cambodia continued its drift toward authoritarianism in 2008 as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) consolidated power through flawed national elections in July. The elections were criticised by the European Union and the United Nations special representative for human rights in Cambodia for failing to meet international standards.
Authorities continue to use the criminal justice system to silence critics. Human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, and opposition party members face intimidation, violence, spurious legal action, imprisonment, and even death. Endemic impunity, rampant corruption, and illegal plundering of natural resources remain pressing issues.
The CPP won National Assembly Elections on July 27 by a wide majority, taking 91 of 123 seats. While there was less political violence than in past elections, the vote was marred by the CPP’s near monopoly over the media, bias within the electoral apparatus, and coerced defections of opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) members to the CPP. Lucrative offers of high-paying government positions and threats of reprisals, including arrest or violence against those who refused, led hundreds of opposition party members to join the CPP.
In March 2008 police arrested and detained SRP leader Tuot Saron in Kampong Thom. He was charged with illegal confinement after assisting a distressed former party colleague following her alleged defection to the CPP under controversial circumstances. He remains in prison at this writing.
Freedoms of Expression, Association, and Assembly
The Cambodian government controls all television and most radio stations and regularly suspends, threatens, or takes legal action against journalists or news outlets that criticize the government. Freedom of speech is hampered by provisions in Cambodian laws that allow individuals to be criminally prosecuted for peaceful expression of their views. Reporters risk dismissal, physical attack, or even death for covering controversial issues.
In July gunmen shot and killed Khim Sambo, a journalist for Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience), an SRP-affiliated newspaper. In June, the newspaper’s editor, Dam Sith, an SRP electoral candidate, was arrested after the paper reported allegations that the foreign minister had served the Khmer Rouge regime. Sith was released after one week, but still faces criminal defamation and disinformation charges. In May, Radio Free Asia journalist Lem Piseth, who was covering alleged involvement of government officials in a drug trafficking and murder case, fled the country after receiving death threats.
The government confiscates, bans, or suspends controversial publications. In May 2008 the government shut down an independent radio station in Kratie after it sold air time to opposition parties. Cambodian authorities also threatened Buddhist monks for circulating bulletins advocating for the rights of Khmer Krom people (ethnic Khmer from southern Vietnam).
A 2007 law on demonstrations requires organizers to give local authorities five days’ notice and holds organizers responsible for any misconduct that occurs. Authorities reject requests or forcibly disperse many demonstrations. For example, in May 2008 authorities in Ratanakiri province prohibited indigenous ethnic minority villagers from conducting a peaceful march to protest land confiscation.
The government continues to fail to resolve cases involving violence against trade union activists. Four years after the murder of labor leader Chea Vichea, the perpetrators remain at large while two men unfairly convicted for the crime are serving 20-year prison sentences. In September 2008, judicial authorities closed the investigation into the murder of labor leader Hy Vuthy in 2007, despite previous police statements that warrants had been issued for two suspects.
Workers who organize or strike for better wages and working conditions are subject to harassment, physical attacks, and unfair dismissal. In February 2008 police and military police forcefully dispersed a strike by garment factory workers at the Kingsland factory in Phnom Penh who were demanding reinstatement of fired union representatives. In March union activist Keo Sokun was attacked and beaten by four men.
The rural and urban poor continue to lose their land to illegal concessions awarded to foreign firms, government officials, and those with connections to government officials. This has become one of the most critical economic and social problems in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, 85,000 people have been forcibly evicted during the last 10 years, with another 70,000 currently facing eviction proceedings. Authorities often provide insufficient notice of impending evictions and inadequate housing and compensation to displaced people afterwards. For example, more than two years after 1,000 families were forcibly evicted from Sambok Chap village in Phnom Penh, the government had not yet provided adequate health care, water, sanitation, schools, and other basic services to the evictees, relocated to a remote site far from the city.
On numerous occasions police and soldiers have used excessive force in evictions. In February 2008, 100 police and military police officers fired AK-47 rifles into the air and used tear gas to forcibly evict 23 families from Russey Keo district in Phnom Penh. In July villagers in Kampot were beaten and arrested when soldiers dismantled their houses and evicted them for a land concession.
Khmer Rouge Tribunal
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a hybrid tribunal presided over by both Cambodian and international judges to address Khmer Rouge era crimes, continued in 2008 to make slow progress toward holding its first trials. At this writing, five senior Khmer Rouge officials remain in detention, including Kaing Khek Iev (Duch), the former chief of Tuol Sleng prison; Pol Pot’s deputy, Nuon Chea; former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan. All are charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, except for Ieng Thirith, who was charged only with crimes against humanity.
Serious concerns remain about political interference in the court from the Cambodian government, corruption among Cambodian personnel, lack of sufficient victim and witness protection, and the limited number of cases brought to address the deaths of as many as 2 million people from 1975-1979. Criticism of the tribunal has mounted, with many in Cambodia saying they are losing interest as the process drags on without tangible results.
Prisons and Arbitrary Detention
Prisons remain overcrowded, with inadequate food, water, health care, and sanitation. Police routinely use torture to force confessions from detainees. In February 2008 a police officer in Kep municipality involved in a land dispute with Princess Marie Ranariddh was arrested, beaten, and detained for a month part of the time in shackles without a court order. In June, Cambodian human rights organization Licadho uncovered abusive conditions including lack of food, medical care, and physical mistreatment at government-run “social rehabilitation centers” where sex workers, homeless children and families, beggars, and drug addicts are detained after arbitrary police round-ups.
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Cambodia continues to violate its obligations under the UN Refugee Convention by forcibly returning Vietnamese Montagnards before they are able to apply for asylum with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). During 2008 UNHCR provided shelter in Phnom Penh to approximately 500 Montagnard asylum seekers, including about 200 new arrivals.
Cambodians who help Montagnard asylum seekers exercise their right to seek asylum are subject to arrest. In June, the Phnom Penh Court sentenced two men to four months’ imprisonment for sheltering Montagnards after they had entered Cambodia to seek asylum.
In October, UNHCR announced that Cambodian immigration police, and not UNHCR, would begin screening all asylum seekers in Cambodia other than ethnic minority Montagnards from Vietnam.
Rule of Law
No progress was made in 2008 on legal and judicial reform. The Supreme Council of Magistracy, established to ensure judicial independence, remains politicized and ineffectual, while the Constitutional Council fails to safeguard the constitutionality of legislation. Despite 15 years of commitments, the government and parliament have still not passed a new criminal law, anti-corruption law, or other legislation critical to the protection of human rights.
Key International Actors
Cambodia’s donors still have not seriously pressed Hun Sen and the Cambodian government to keep their annual promises to promote and protect human rights and establish the rule of law and judicial independence.
Instead of demanding that the Cambodian government allow the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to complete its investigation into the March 30, 1997 grenade attack on a rally led by opposition party leader Sam Rainsy—in which at least 16 were killed and which the US branded a terrorist act—the US in 2008 worked with individuals implicated in that attack and other incidents of political violence in counterterrorism programs with the Cambodian government. In June the US raised Cambodia’s anti-trafficking ranking to Tier 2 to reflect its assessment that the country’s practices had improved. The US continues to provide funding and training to the Cambodian military.
In September, the UN Human Rights Commission decided to create the post of a special rapporteur on Cambodia to replace the former functions of the secretary-general’s special representative. The last special representative, Yash Ghai, resigned in September 2008, noting that Cambodia still faces serious human rights challenges and “deep-seated systematic deficiencies in the judiciary and other key institutions charged with upholding the rule of law and protecting the rights of individuals.”
Cambodia is due to be reviewed under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of the HRC in December 2009.