Cambodia has no political prisoners but politicians with criminal acts. That is what the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen stated publicly on November 23 during a public speech. Rupert Abbott is the Amnesty international researcher for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. On November 18, he published a commentary in the Global Post in which – referring to 71-year-old journalist Mam Sonando – he states “Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, jailed solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression”. Asian Correspondent met him to discuss the state of human rights in Cambodia after the historical visit of US President Obama and the expectations that the ASEAN drew in the country.

What do you think of Prime Minister’s Hun Sen statement on human rights according to whichCambodia is not that bad compared to neighbouring countries ?

There are certainly other countries with serious human rights problems, including Vietnam for example. But Cambodia’s donors might say that Cambodia has received billions of dollars in assistance from foreign taxpayers. And after 20 years of promised reforms, the justice system looks a bit better, but in substance there has been little change.

For example, the control of the courts by political and business elites continues. And we can see these courts persecuting human rights defenders and grassroots groups that have been emerging in the context of land and natural resource conflict and operating outside the usual power structures. This seems to be concerning the Cambodian authorities.

But Cambodia should be proud of its civil society, which is changing, and I think that this is not going unnoticed by the government. Look at what happened at Boeung Kak Lake for example, where we saw a community stand up for itself against a forced eviction and actually achieve concessions from the authorities. These communities are learning from each other; the Boeung Kak community is inspiring others, such as Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila’s community. This is different to an NGO going to community and telling them how to organize. NGOs represent human rights – and therefore principles, while these grassroots groups and community groups represent people.

Barack Obama, Hun Sen

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, is shown the way by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen before the ASEAN-U.S. leaders meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month. Pic: AP.

Do you think Obama’s visit met the expectation of Cambodians?

I am not sure what Cambodians generally expected. Amnesty International – along with most Cambodian human rights groups – was generally pleased since everything that the U.S President said was made public and he was strong on human rights.  In hindsight, perhaps it was a shame that more conditions weren’t put on his visit, particularly the immediate release of prisoner of conscience Mam Sonando. Realistically, I think President Obama’s stance was as strong as one could have expected. There is another point to be made. Other leaders in Cambodia for the ASEAN and East Asia Summits – from Japan, Australia and India, which is the biggest democracy in the world – didn’t say much at all about the human rights situation. So Obama’s strong words should be considered in this context also.

Do you think a crackdown on human rights defenders can happen now that the ASEAN and East Asia Summits are over?

2012 has been a really bad year for human rights in Cambodia, especially with regard to land conflict and freedom of expression in that context. There is no doubt the government knows the land problem is serious: there have been public policy shifts to address the problem. The hope is that the government reflects a bit, after the summits, and understands that its reputation is at stake. The human rights situation needs to be improved, with the justice system strengthened, and civil society allowed to contribute to the more equal development of the country.

Of course, the government will not be happy about the negative attention it got around the human rights situation during the first ever visit of a United States president. We hope that the international community won’t start to look away. Elections are coming in nine months, which historically means further restrictions on freedom of expression.

What is your opinion on the culture of the impunity still going on in the country?

Fighting impunity requires reform to the justice system and strengthening the rule of law, so that the  courts protect ordinary Cambodians.

This year, we have seen impunity in a number of high profile cases. For example, there was no investigation in to the May killing of a 14-year-old girl during the forced eviction of a community in Kratie province’s Pro Ma village. And the investigation and judicial proceedings around the April killing of environment activist Chut Wutty have been unsatisfactory.

What are your expectations for Cambodia in the future?

We have to hope that those in power institute reforms – including around the land problem and the justice system – that are in the interests of the population, while embracing civil society as a dynamic force to contribute to the fairer development of the country.

If restrictions on freedom of expression persist and the land crisis continues, it is hard to predict exactly what will happen. But we are concerned that we may see some of the government’s gains made over the past 20 years, in terms of economic development and poverty reduction, being undone.