Asian Correspondent » Clothilde Le Coz Asian Correspondent Wed, 27 May 2015 15:00:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Yorm Bopha free, but not proven innocent Fri, 22 Nov 2013 13:11:29 +0000 On Friday, tourists could not access the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. It was closed as next door one of the most important cases of the year was reviewed by the judges of the Supreme Court of Cambodia. Shortly after noon, it was decided; Yorm Bopha, 30, was released on bail and her case is sent back to the Appeal Court. One of her lawyers admitted to the local press he was still worried about her. Outside the court, once the news of her release was heard, supporters were relieved and their songs of joy echoed through the streets.

Yorm Bopha enters the court room for her hearing at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday. Pic: AP.

A land activist living in the Boeung Kak community, Yorm Bopha was arrested by the Phnom Penh Municipal Police on September 4, 2012 and sentenced on December 27 to three years in prison. The Municipal Court sentenced her under Article 218 of the Cambodian Criminal Code: “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” and ordered her to pay 30,000,000 riels (US$7,500) in compensation. She is accused of instigating an assault on two motorcycle taxi drivers. Her husband, Mr. Lous Sakhorn, was charged under the same provision but released on bail. On the June 5 and 14, 2013, the Appeal Court heard Bopha’s case – it was rejected. Though one year of her sentence was suspended.

Human rights organisations have been calling for her release ever since the activist’s arrest. Amnesty International declared Bopha “a prisoner of conscience” and described the charges against her as “fabricated”. When the Supreme Court started to issue the verdict, smiles could be noticed everywhere in the courtroom. The audience was hanging on to the judges’ every word. As the Appeal Court failed to provide enough arguments in its decision, the Supreme Court found it could not issue a ruling and sent the case back to the Appeal Court.

“I am here as a citizen because I am concerned for the justice in my country”, Yeng Virak told Asian Correspondent before the verdict was announced. The director of the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), Virak explained that his organisation is providing free legal advice to Yorm Bopha. “Bopha remained strong and she was confident when answering the questions of the judge that she did not commit any crime,” he continued.

Yorm Bopha was threatened many times by the authorities prior to her arrest. She is a strong critic of the Phnom Penh Municipal Authority, which forcefully evicted her community from Boeung Kak Lake in January 2012. The land dispute she was involved in started in 2007, when her community’s land was claimed for a commercial development in central Phnom Penh by Shukaku Inc – a company owned by Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Senator Lao Meng Khin. Together with her fellow female activists, Bopha initiated a wave of anti-eviction protests leading to the birth of a larger land rights movement in the Cambodian capital. Two other women-led groups joined in the protests and used the same tactics as their “Boeung Kak Lake sisters” to oppose forced evictions and call for fair compensation.

Birth of a new movement

While women are often perceived as defenceless “soft targets” in forced evictions, Dr Katherine Brickell, Senior Lecturer of Human Geography at Royal Holloway University, UK asserts that the Phnom Penh activists have successfully challenged that assumption. With lotuses held up in their hands and songs on their lips, they use their status as wives and mothers to shame the riot police whenever they are publicly beaten. “By harnessing softness as a strategy rather than a hindrance, these women have committed themselves to a sustained campaign of non-violent protest…and are playing a critical leadership role in publicly contesting large-scale losses of homes that are being felt in communities sadly too numerous to name,” Brickell wrote in her article for The Guardian newspaper.

This morning, songs and lotus flowers were there again, leaving the streets full of petals. Singing and praying for the future of their community, Boeung Kak Lake residents arrived early to show their support. A woman stood out in the crowd, dressed in white, holding banana leaves as the sceptre of justice, her face painted half in black and half in white she chanted “free my daughter”. Yorm Bopha was freed today before 6pm after paperwork was completed by the court and the prison authorities. Boeung Kak will hold a party tonight to welcome her home.

Ruom Collective2013 – Clothilde Le Coz & Marta Kasztelan


This article has been corrected on  November 23rd. The previous version was mentioning Yorm Bopha had been sentenced under article 214 of the penal code while she has been sentenced under article 218. As stated by the Cambodian NGO ADHOC, for total accuracy,  it should read Mr. Lous Sakhorn was sentenced under the same provision. He was charged but later sentenced. 

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Report reveals bitter plight of Cambodian sugar farmers Fri, 08 Nov 2013 05:37:58 +0000 Equitable Cambodia and Inclusive Development International re-launch their report “Bittersweet Harvest” in Bangkok today. According to the report, Cambodian sugar farmers are being impoverished and people are losing their homes because of a European Union trade scheme (‘Everything But Arms’) that allows Cambodia, and other least developed nations, duty-free access to the European market and places a minimum price on Cambodian sugar.  The logic of it is to increase investment, create jobs, foster economic growth and therefore reduce poverty and encourage development in the poorest countries.

The initiative, introduced in 2001, has has seen huge growth in sugar cane farming in Cambodia, from negligible to over 100,000 hectares in the past six years, often resulting in evictions to make way for new plantations. The organizations conclude that there is an “urgent need” for assessment and and reform of the EBA scheme and issue nine recommendations to the EU, including “ban[ning] the import of agricultural goods produced on illegally acquired land”.

Pic: AP.

One community in western Cambodia  is fighting to survive after  two companies – both owned by the Thai sugar giant, Khon Kaen Sugar Co Ltd (KSL) – pushed 456 families off of their land to make way for a 18,057.32 hectare sugar plantation in 2006.

However, the EBA Initiative cannot be amended or changed. The initiative can only be withdrawn, which is not considered realistic for Cambodia at present.

Complex responsibility

The EBA trade system has been the motivator behind the recent rise of the sugar trade and the value of Cambodian exports jumped from US$51,000 in 2009 to US13.8 million in 2011 according to the figures of the UN Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD). According to the Bittersweet Harvest report, 92% of the exports went to European Union states.

For the first time in 2010, the first export of 10,000 tons of sugar left Cambodia in 40 years according to the Thai KSL Group, which owns part of the Koh Kong plantation in Western Cambodia. The shipment was estimated to be valued at $3.13m and it was reported that KSL had a five-year contract with London-based Tate & Lyle Sugars. However, according to Tate & Lyle Sugars, there is no such contract. Moreover, in October 2012, Tate&Lyle called for fairer regulation of sugar refining in the European Union, arguing that the current regime leads to big losses in refining.

According to the report  “Sugar rush“, Tate&Lyle says it has received shipments of sugar from KSL on two occasions to date, in May 2011 and June 2012 and has no plans to do so in the future. Tate & Lyle Sugars is owned by the US sugar giant American Sugar Holdings (ASR Group) based in West Palm Beach, Florida. Oxfam also states that sugar sold by Tate & Lyle Sugars is purchased by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo bottlers and used in their products, as confirmed in dialogue with the two companies. Both work with ‘franchisees’ which manufacture and produce branded products such as Coke and Pepsi. These entities are subject to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo supplier guidelines and other contract provisions which mandate certain sustainability requirements.

But according to Oxfam, without better preventative measures Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have no way to guarantee to customers that the ingredients used in their products were not grown on land that was grabbed from farmers without their consent.

The World Bank has found that the main link between countries with the most large-scale land deals is the poor protection of rural land rights. In Cambodia it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people are victims of land disputes.

Land deals are a vast issue in Cambodia and land disputes are fuelled by a failing land titling system. Scores of land documents were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge regime, leaving many Cambodians unable to prove ownership. Now the government claims that residents squat on land illegally. According to Cambodia’s 2001 land law, anyone who has used land since 1996 can claim full title to it (Article 30). In the Koh Kong province where Oxfam investigated, the families had all lived on the land since before 1999 – and some had been there since as far back as 1979.

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Anonymous Cambodia marks Million Mask March with ‘small’ online campaign Wed, 06 Nov 2013 09:51:36 +0000 The Cambodian government was warned by Anonymous Cambodia that “fairness, justice and freedom are more than words“, as stated by V in the movie “V for Vendetta”. On November 5, Anonymous Cambodia aimed to lead a major rally in “cyberspace” for fear that supporters marching in reality would be arrested. “I would say Hun Sen is… a dictator because if Anonymous march to the street on Nov 5 like people did in the US, I am sure they all will get arrested“, stated an Anon on November 4.

On November 5, to help LuLzSec to celebrate “Guy Fawkes Day”, Anonymous Cambodia participated in a “fun” hacking session on NASA.  It also  hacked the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia to leak data as well as the KHMAC investment website.


Too small?

When reached on November 6 to assess the impact of the November 5 operation in Cambodia, one Anon stated it was small because “less than 10 people helped“, coming from different parts of the world. For example, the group aimed to target the SL garment company but was “too busy” working on other attacks. “We [did] not have enough people to help DDoS the site,” stated the Anon.

 “A Bunch of Chopsticks Can’t Be Broken”

To Anonymous Cambodia, there is no good existing example of government and knowledge and information have become the prerogatives of the rich. “Freedom to us is vital to humanity. Without freedom one cannot live as a human being. Whoever is preventing human from being a human is not welcome by us,” the Anon states. To them, cyber surveillance and censorship are preventing people to be free in Cambodia. Moreover, the Cambodian elections system is something Anonymous Cambodia does not trust and, at any rate, they are “not interested” in the political situation.
Anonymous Cambodia believes the strength for change lies in the number of people involved. As such, their so called “western” vision of freedom and change fits into the Cambodian state of mind and could be compared to the Khmer proverb: ” a bunch of chopsticks cannot be broken”, showing strength in unity.

Khmer Rouge Tribunal targeted

On November 2 it was reported that hackers of the group had taken down the website of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. “ECCC has tried to silence victims of crimes against humanity. So we acted,”  states the Anon, basing this action on a report from Radio France International published in Khmer language. In it, the Paris-based media states that “some civil party lawyers complained about restrictions within the tribunal”.

Targeting a website is the decision of one Anon or the result of a collective consultation.In the case of the ECCC website, an Anon from Cambodia decided and that was followed by others globally.

Moreover, according to the Anon, the Cambodian government  computer systems are easy to reach. Information has already been taken from the Anti-corruption Unit, as well as a lengthy document from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in September 2012.

The Cambodian government called Anonymous’ actions “terrorists acts” on September 17 after they “declared war” on the ruling CPP in a video exposing their Operation Cambodia, responding to clashes with protesters that left one person dead.

For Mike Vitale of the Chanology project,  the Anonymous group “calls itself the final boss of the Internet and sometimes it proves to really be […] true”. But to him, “hacking doesn’t accomplish anything […] it doesn’t send a message; it just gets more people arrested in the name of Anonymous” in a 2011 interview.

On November 15, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York will sentence Jeremy Hammond, an Anon who leaked information from the private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting (StratFor) through the WikiLeaks website, revealing the organization had been spying on human rights activists in the US.

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Cambodia: Defence slams ‘showcase’ Khmer Rouge trial Thu, 24 Oct 2013 07:52:38 +0000 “Are we supposed to settle this legal dispute through a debate between New York Times journalists?”* was a question defence lawyer Victor Koppe asked the Khmer Rouge Tribunal judge Tuesday, as he started his closing statement. He rejected the accusation charges saying that in this trial, “nobody is interested by the manifestation of the truth”; it has been created to punish these people, whose culpability had already been decided.

He raised the fact that the accusation based its arguments on second hands testimonies from foreign journalists and communist PCK publications. Ironically, he stated that the trial could have saved over 200 million dollars since 2006 if it was just to state what can be found in books sold online for about 41 dollars. “We hope there is reason why it was not done like this,” he told the judges.

Nuon Chea, Cambodia Khmer Rouge trial

Nuon Chea. Pic: AP.

Closing statements started in Phnom Penh on Otober 16. It is the last time that Nuon Chea, 87, known as “brother #2″ and the former chief ideologist of the Khmer Rouge and Khieu Samphan, 82, and the former head of State of Democratic Kampuchea, could defend themselves against accusations of their roles in the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975, the movements of population and the large-scale killings of the ex-military and civilian population carried out in Tuol Po Chrey until 1977.

This trial started in 2011 and Victor Koppe is the co-lawyer for Nuon Chea. Together with his Cambodian counterpart, Son Arun, they had two days to defend their client, based on these two points:

1. A “Showcase” trial?

Half an hour after his statement, Koppe addressed the judges in these terms: “Mr. President, imagine the United Nations were to create an international tribunal to sue former US president GW Bush for the crimes committed in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. Imagine Bush is charged with unlawful use of armed force, the death of thousands of innocent civilians […] and torture. Imagine then that the accused is told the events of September 11, 2001 are not relevant because they occurred 18 months before the ratione temporis competency of the tribunal. Would it be logical to anyone?”
He was laying out what will be at the center of the Defence: the legitimacy of the Khmer Rouge tribunal and the fact that Nuon Chea wanted to stop French colonialism and American imperialism. Both co-lawyers will also remind the public and the Chamber that more bombs have been dropped on Cambodia than during WWII and the atomic bombs together. To Koppe, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) have been created by victors and  the Prosecution is more about building a case against communism as a belief system,rather than one against the allegedly criminal acts of the Accused.
He called the ECCC proceedings a “showcase trial”.
2. Nuon Chea: unproven responsibility?
The Cambodian co-lawyer Son Arun described the character, role and the intentions of his client within the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). He stated Nuon Chea always lived a simple life and the CPK hoped to “free the Cambodian people from colonialism, imperialism and feudalism“. His client wanted to overcome a system of inequality through communism. Son Arun rejected the Accusation depiction of Nuon Chea as a party hardliner and portrayed him more as “negotiator” within the party as well as denying the claims of responsibility made by the co-prosecutors, stating that he acted as Prime Minister for a year or oversaw military affairs, providing prevalent evidence. He will continue tomorrow to paint another Nuon Chea. It will then be Khieu Samphan’s defence on October 25 and 28.

On October 16, Nuon Chea asked to be transferred to another room during the proceedings as he was not feeling well. Since then, he follows the proceedings from an underground room where he can get medical attention and a TV to watch the trial. Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea are living in a detention house next to the ECCC, where they are provided with 24/7  medical care.  In this case, they are both charged with crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and genocide against the Muslim Cham and the Vietnamese.


*the quotes used in this article are a translation of the French interpretation during the trial proceedings on October 22nd. The full transcripts will be available at ECCC

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Cambodia: Human rights groups condemn excessive use of force Wed, 25 Sep 2013 03:27:08 +0000 It was 20 years on September 24 since the Cambodian Constitution was first signed, marking the end of the UN transitional authority in the country (Untac). Today’s Constitution was drafted in July and August 1993 by 12 persons. One of them told the local press on Tuesday that, while  the “essentials for democracy” are in the text, its implementation has been “completely diverted from its goal”.

Under the Constitution, the King names a representative of the party gaining the most parliamentary seats to form a government. This is how Hun Sen was appointed by King Norodom Sihamoni to do so. However, the Constitution requires 50% of the votes of the National Assembly to confirm the new government.  On Tuesday, a truncated National Assembly of 68 members re-elected Mr. Hun Sen with a new mandate as Cambodian Prime Minister for the next five years, as 68 does represent more than half the seats. Sam Rainsy, one of the leaders of the CNRP, called the Constitution a “big disappointment”, echoing the opinion of the lawmaker who participated in the drafting process of the Constitution.

Elected members of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by Sam Rainsy and Khem Sokha, have boycotted the National Assembly this week, stating that authorities have not held any inquiry about the massive electoral frauds and calling the meeting “a violation of the Constitution”. From September 7-17, the CNRP held a number of non violent demonstrations in Phnom Penh to ask for further investigations into the results. According to Transparency International, the CPP should have won these elections with 48.9% of the votes and the CNRP with 44.2%, showing that the competition between the two parties is tighter than it actually seems and stating that the official results announced on September 8 might not be reflective of people’s willbecause of widespread irregularities.

A number of incidents have occurred in recent weeks that  highlight the tensions surrounding the election result. On September 15 security forces fired at civilians in Phnom Penh, killing one person and wounding several others. These practices have been denounced by Human Rights Watch.

On September 20, hundreds of armed security forces dispersed a peaceful gathering led by CNRP official Prince Sisowath Thomico, who was on hunger strike and accompanied by a group of Buddhist monks and other supporters. Two days later, at the same place, police and gendarmes armed with guns as well as civilian auxiliaries with tasers and slingshots broke up a peaceful vigil by representatives of people evicted from their homes in Phnom Penh. The participants were reiterating their demand for electoral fairness and calling for the release of imprisoned Boeng Kak housing rights activist Yorm Bopha. At least 10 community members were injured and seven journalists attacked.

These events were condemned on September 24 by a group of five NGOs – including HRW and Amnesty International – denouncing “the authorities’ unnecessary and excessive use of force” and urging “foreign governments and the United Nations [to] speak out and condemn violations of the right to peaceful assembly and related rights”. The Oversees Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) also condemned the attacks against local and foreign journalists.

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Can Cambodia’s new government really represent the people? Wed, 11 Sep 2013 07:58:12 +0000 As the Cambodian King stated in a letter to the National Election Committee that he would invite “all elected parliamentarians for the first session on September 23″, criticism over the election results is still rumbling among opposition leaders and supporters despite the talk of reform from the ruling party. But opposition leader Sam Rainsy told journalists yesterday that this letter was not an official announcement to convene the National Assembly but rather a “correspondence between the King and NEC President”. Uncertainty remains as to the day the 5th mandate of the Assembly will be convened if the opposition boycotts it, as planned.

The official results of the elections were announced last Sunday and confirmed the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 68 seats – 22 less than in 2008 – in the July 28 elections. Since then, the ruling party sees the 5th mandate of the National Assembly as  a “period of reform”, focusing in particular on accountability of the courts. But on the same day, the oppostion Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) declared that it would boycott the opening session of the National Assembly and called for a 3-day sit-in in Phnom Penh starting September 15. Since preliminary results have been announced on July 28, the CNRP has been calling for an investigation of the irregularities reported. For more than a month, they have been asking for  an independent body to investigate the accusations of irregularities. This is the condition for Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition, to take part in the next government.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Pic: AP.

But opinions are not unanimous regarding this decision. David Chandler, a leading Cambodia scholar, told the Associated Press it would be wise for the opposition lawmakers to simply take up the 55 seats they won. “I can sympathize with the CNRP, but I think they’re being very unrealistic in their demands for power,” quotes AP. Interviewed by The Phnom Penh Post, young political blogger Ou Ritthy is also sceptical in the attempt of the opposition to protest: “You can sit down in Freedom Park and stay there for three days, but what is the impact?”

On September 7, a rally was organized by the opposition party in Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. On the same day, a coalition of 22 local NGOs called for a summit of political leaders to solve the election dispute. In the press release they state that “the election administration (NEC) and dispute resolution Institutions (Constitutional Council), failed to address the elections complaints properly and satisfactorily” and fear that this failure “may lead to social turmoil and then political, economic and social crisis”.

Not enough women in politics

Moreover, concerns have been expressed as the 5th mandate of the National Assembly does not seem representative of the Cambodian population as the percentage of women represented will drop. According to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), official results indicate that only 25 out of 123 seats will be filled by women, compared to 28 in the previous mandate.

The organization states:

Although these election results represent only a slight decrease (1.67%, or two seats less) from the previous mandate in women’s political representation in the National Assembly, it nevertheless indicates a continued lack of political will and initiative to significantly increase women’s representation at all levels of government.”

To Chor Chanthyda, Project Coordinator of the Project to Promote Women’s Political Representation at CCHR, said gender quotas could be a solution to this situation. In 1993, there were only eight women seating at the National Assembly. “This stems from a common perception of women not being qualified enough for political leadership, as well as from economic restraints and discrimination faced by women in all aspects of society,” states CCHR.

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Analysis: Were the Cambodian elections fixed? Thu, 01 Aug 2013 02:34:04 +0000 In what is now a contested election, the preliminary results announced Sunday night after the vote are attributing 68 seats to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and 55 to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

On Wednesday morning, The Cambodia Daily published an article in which it stated the opposition party issued its own results Tuesday night, claiming at least 63 seats using the calculations based on the National Election Committee forms tallying the votes out of each polling station. This would give them the majority at the National Assembly and lead Sam Rainsy and Khem Sokha to rule Cambodia.

In a press release published on the same day, the New-York based organisation Human Rights Watch states that the ruling party orchestrated vote fraud, saying a senior official voted in multiple constituencies and used the police to threaten villagers. A couple of day before the elections, Brad Adams, the Asia director for the organization, stated that  “what should result in the will of the people has been organized to result in the will of the Cambodian People’s Party.”

cc Oudom Tat/31 July 2013 - Prime Minister Hun Sen on a tour of an overpass construction site at Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey commune, in Meanchey district. It was In his first public appearance since Sunday’s national election

Later that day, long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen declared he was open to holding talks with opposition leader Sam Rainsy and an investigation into alleged irregularities at the polls. The CNRP has not yet publicly responded to this statement.

Intentional irregularities?

According to an expert on Cambodian politics who wished to remain anonymous, “certainly there are going to be some low-level incidents across some 14,000 villages. The question is whether they were systematic, and intentional”.

Back in February, the 2013 Cambodia Voter Registry Audit put together by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Cambodia’s Center for Advanced Studies, and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, urged the National Election Committee to make the registration list available to accept international monitors at polling stations. However, Tep Nytha, secretary general of the National Election Committee, told the  Phnom Penh Post that there is little likelihood of implementing the recommendations.

“I know from experience that flaws in the voter lists are not resulting only from technical difficulties. It is no involuntary action,” confides a long-time observer of the electoral process in Cambodia, who has worked with the NEC and on the voter registration issues during past elections.

“Voter registration lists have always been a consistent problem since the UNTAC elections, which Cambodian authorities have shown no political will to seriously tackle despite decades on international assistance. This is not a problem of capacity or competency,” he continues.

A month before the elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that CNRP seats would be reallocated to other parties if the opposition were not to recognize the results. This was echoed by Tep Nytha, the NEC General Secretary.

cc Oudom Tat/31 July 2013. Motos of security guards around the Stung Meanchey Pagod in Phnom Penh, Meanchey district. It was the first appearance of Prime Minister Hun Sen after Sunday's elections.

The election was recognized by “international observers”

On Monday morning, a delegation invited by the national election committee (NEC) declared that the elections were “a triumph of popular will and a victory for the Cambodian people” after they visited “a dozen polling stations, some pre-arranged, some randomly”. Observers from China, South Korea and Hungary said that Sunday’s general election was conducted in a competitive, free, fair and transparent manner.
“The overall election environment was calm, peaceful and non-violent,” said a statement by a Chinese observer team released late Monday. “Despite some complaints, we did not observe any incidents that might have adversely affected the process or the results of the elections.” The Chinese delegation was led by Zhao Shi-tong, deputy director of Bureau No. 2 of the Communist Party of China’s International Department. A day after, Thailand congratulated Hun Sen for the CPP  “victory”.
Talking to the press on Tuesday, Ouch Borith, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that  the opposition party should therefore recognize the truth “as tens of thousands of national observers and hundreds of foreign monitors have accepted that the election was conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner”. However, the European Union did not send any observer this year, tired of not seeing its recommendations taken into account in the past.

But what seems to be a CPP victory is in reality a loss of at least 22 seats. Together with the “serious irregularities” and accusations formulated against the CPP, its power will be undermined in the next National Assembly. From the inside, and according to the expert in Cambodian politics, “there is little that binds the CPP aside from shared self-interest and patronage. If the party wishes to seriously address the top issues that threaten its rule, corruption, it undermines the glue that holds it together”.  Within the CPP, there are internal factions and some have now a greater leverage than before “as they now can subtly threaten to defect to an informal coalition with the opposition unless their demands are met internally,” he explains.

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‘Serious irregularities’ overshadow Cambodia election result Mon, 29 Jul 2013 11:29:41 +0000 Last night before the election results were officially announced, opposition leader Sam Rainsy declared Sunday was “a historical day and a victory for the whole nation in the advancement of democracy”. The leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) said he had “heard of some incidents”, but qualified the day as “great for Cambodia”.  This morning there was an altogether different mood as the CNRP rejected the preliminary results announced last night by the National Election Committee (NEC).  Speaking to journalists this morning, Sam Rainsy stated that “all serious election irregularities” should be investigated.

It is estimated that 69% of registered voters went to the  polling stations (compared to 75% in 2008) and, according to the preliminary results, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won a majority of 68 seats and the CNRP 55. This represents a considerable loss of 22 representatives for the CPP. Moreover, the opposition won some of the most significant provinces in Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Kandal, Kompong Speu and Kompong Cham) leaving the ruling party in a tough situation. While it will still be able to form a government without requiring a coalition with the CNRP, the CPP will no longer be able to unilaterally change the Constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority of votes in Parliament.

Unusually high number of incidents

“The results do not reflect the will of the Cambodian people,” said Preap Kol, the executive director for Transparency International Cambodia this afternoon. According to the Transparency International observation, the CPP won the elections with 48.5% of the votes (margin error of 1.6%) and the CNRP came second with 44.4% (margin error of 1.8%).

Buddhist monks and villagers watch as a military police car burns near a polling station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday. Pic: AP.

The organization also released the findings of a sample-based observation showing that citizens with proper identification were unable to find their names on the lists in three out of five polling stations, while it was possible to vote without a valid ID in close to three out of 10 polling stations. Considering these numbers, one can’t help but wonder whether irregularities have had a pivotal role in deciding the results of the election.

These findings echo a litany of complaints that the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) received all day at its situation room in Phnom Penh. At 10am one voter reported that his name was already ticked when he arrived at the polling station. He was asked to wait until 2pm to be able to vote. “They did the same last year,” he said. “I do not understand why the lists are not correct.” Accusations and complaints against the government spread rapidly.

“In this country, we always have doubts and suspicions when things do not go right,” explained Preap Kol.

Yesterday, violence flared in Phnom Penh when two police cars were set on fire in a south-western neighborhood of the capital city.

“People get angry because they cannot vote,” warned a local monk.

The situation became tense and a hundred of riot police were deployed to control the demonstration. The director of the polling station was detained by a group of angry young people.

Before announcing the results last night, the NEC acknowledged that the vote was “more messy” than in 2008.  However, the Committee rejected all allegations of electoral fraud.

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Cambodia shoe factory collapses, killing at least two Thu, 16 May 2013 04:44:55 +0000 As Western retailers such as H&M, Zara, Tesco and others decided to support new safety regulations in Bangladesh garment factories following the building collapse that kill over 1,100 people, it is now Cambodia’s turn to wake up under wreckage.

Around 7.20am this morning the ceiling of the Wing Star shoe factory of the Western province of Kompong Speu collapsed as workers were entering the building to start their shift. The number of casualties is not yet confirmed but early reports indicated at least two workers killed and six or 7 others severely injured. The Cambodia Daily managed to talk to a local official saying that an unknown number of workers remain trapped under the wreckage, but other reports  estimated the number of trapped at about 50.

Cambodian rescuers work at the site of a factory collapse in Kai Ruong village, south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday. Pic: AP.

“Two died, a male and a female worker, and six are in critical condition,” the Kong Pisei district governor Ma Savath told the Daily today. He said that more than 2,000 workers are employed at the factory complex, which consists of several buildings. According to local testimonies, about two hundred workers were on site when the ceiling of the building collapsed.

The Cambodia  Daily also talked to Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC),who confirmed that the factory was a member of his organization. The number of companies registering to GMAC doubled in 2012. As of today, 39 companies producing shoes are members of the organisation.  According to The Phnom Penh Post, workers from the factory already protested poor working conditions and pay in March when they stopped working and  blocked a main road.

Win Star Shoes Co. Ltd produces shoes imported to the US and Europe. In 2012, more than $4 billion worth of products were shipped to the United States and Europe. Since 2006, Cambodia is part of the European initiative called “Everything But Arms” that allows Least Developed Countries (LDC) to import duty free and quota free with exception to armaments. This boosted the Cambodian garment sector. Thanks to this Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, exports to the EU grew twice as much as exports to any other of Cambodia’s trading partners in 2012. Economists say that it would not be surprising if exports to the EU soon made up half of all Cambodia’s exports, with garments leading the way. As of November, 45 Cambodian factories exported footwear with a combined value of $268.7 million, according to estimates of the Ministry of Commerce.

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Risky business: The dangers of journalism in Cambodia Fri, 03 May 2013 04:51:41 +0000 By Ben Rutledge

World Press Freedom Day celebrates its 20th anniversary today. The UN describes it as an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, to assess the state of press freedom and to defend the media from attacks on their independence. Cambodia is no exception.

At just 24 years old, Voice of Democracy (VOD) journalist Sun Narin is rapidly developing an impressive CV, having already worked as a freelance journalist at the Phnom Penh Post and more recently the Wall Street Journal. In the aftermath of the Koh Pich bridge tragedy in 2010, Narin served the Journal as a translator. He now works at VOD producing news articles on a range of political, human rights related and international issues. VOD is known as the only national independent radio station in Cambodia providing live and impartial news.

(READ MORE: Analysis: The assault on freedom of expression in Sri Lanka)

Having graduated from the prestigious Department of Media and Communications (DMC) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Narin tells me that the DMC, is still the academic training ground for journalists and communication practitioners in Cambodia. This is less because of the rigorous entrance exams, small class sizes and high standards, and more because it is still the only higher educational establishment in the country offering media-related courses. “There is nowhere else to go,” he says.

Sun Narin interviews United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Mr Surya Subedi in December 2012. Pic: AP.

Narin claims that despite this, most of his classmates did not even want to become journalists when they graduated. They said that the profession is ‘risky’ and not well paid. They tended to gravitate towards careers in advertising and PR which is more lucrative and safer. Ironically, journalists who did not attend the DMC and who persisted in accepting low wages and the risks involved are often not considered journalists at all because of their lack of professional qualifications. Narin says that they are accused of lacking the necessary knowledge and professional standards. “This is one of the biggest challenges for Cambodia in developing an independent and trustworthy media”. There are not enough opportunities to study, and these are often taken by students who do not want to pursue careers in journalism. “We badly need more independent journalists”.

(READ MORE: A tale of two democracies: How Mongolia has outshone Cambodia)

In light of the murder of Hang Serei Oudom last year, a reporter for the local Virakchum Khmer Daily newspaper, I asked him how safe he feels it is to work as a journalist in Cambodia today. He describes how that if you work for a Government-backed organisation, you are not in much danger. However, if you work for an independent organisation, the risks are much greater.

“If you are different from other media organisations, you are considered an opposition supporter. If you work for RFA [Radio Free Asia] or VOD, you always have to consider your safety,” he said. He admits to taking sensitive information out that he knows to be correct, but that is not public knowledge. This is when “it is too critical of the Government”. He insists that he does not change the emphasis of his stories, but he may omit particularly risky information when necessary. “I don’t want to be in jail. I want the freedom to continue writing.”

Narin goes on to describe some of the threats that media organisations receive. He refers to the Government’s comments about RFA’s reporting on Preah Vihear in March 2013. A government spokesman warned the broadcaster against potentially inciting reporting on land loss along the Thai border, calling it a “national security” issue that could prompt legal action. “These threats affect us all. We discussed the legal case against RFA during our editorial meeting earlier in the week. VOD planned to cover this but we decided to postpone the broadcast.” Narin claims that more threats have been issued in 2013 than in previous years and speculates that this is because it is an election year.

The US State Department released a highly critical report on the human rights situation in Cambodia which stated that “the government, military forces, and the ruling political party continued to dominate the broadcast media and influence the content of broadcasts. All television stations and most radio stations were controlled or strongly influenced by the CPP.” I ask Narin if he thought this was a fair representation of the situation, and if it was, where he saw his future 10 years from now. He replied that the report was correct, but that he is optimistic for change. “I am a person for society, not a person for myself. In 10 years’ time, things will be different. There will be more independent media in Cambodia.”

Interview conducted by Ben Rutledge, Development Consultant at the Cambodia Centre for Independent Media. World Press Freedom Day 2013 focuses on the theme “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”. To find out more, visit UNESCO at or CCIM at

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Chut Wutty death does little to curb Cambodia’s illegal logging Mon, 29 Apr 2013 01:54:40 +0000 In an article published exactly one year after environmental activist Chut Wutty was killed in Cambodia, Megan MacInnes, Senior Land Campaigner at Global Witness, regrets that “Wutty’s death has not served as a wake-up call for Cambodia’s donors or allies“. On the same day, his brother- in-law, Yong Sokhorn, told Radio Free Asia that, “The government must reconsider and reopen the case in order to find the true killer and determine who was behind the killing.”

A year ago, Chut Wutty, one of the most outspoken voices against illegal logging, wanted to show two Cambodia Daily reporters that the Timbergreen company was involved in processing yellow vine. He was supposedly shot on site by In Rattana, a military police officer who was there to protect the company’s property in the Cambodian southwestern province of Koh Kong. In Rattana was also killed a few minutes later.

Chut Wutty

Chut Wutty, left, stands next to a log in a jungle in Kampong Thom province in northern of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Pic: AP.

Impunity and lack of justice

It is believed by activists that light will never fully be shed on Wutty’s and Rattana’s cases. “Okay shoot me!” Chut Wutty said to In Rattana, the military officer who was threatening to kill him if he did not give away his memory stick full of pictures. That’s all the Cambodian justice system decided to disclose about the argument that preceded their killings. Both were found dead on a dirt road next to the  facilities of the logging company Timbergreen.

According to the Cambodian justice system, In Rattana shot Wutty. Therefore, there was never a trial about what happened. Furthermore, In Rattana was accidentally shot by a former employee of Timbergreen. The employee was sentenced to two years in jail on October 22, 2012 with 18 months of that sentence suspended. He walked free less than two weeks after. While local NGOs called it a “mockery of justice”. But at that time, the Koh Kong provincial judge Kham Sophary and deputy prosecutor Srey Makny said they were busy in a meeting and could not comment on the decision as requested by The Phnom Penh Post.

In its 2012 report about human rights practices published earlier this month, the US State Department called them “arbitrary killings“. Shortly after the killings and according to the report, Koh Kong military police detained journalists Phorn Bopha and Olesia Plohkii for two days . The police reportedly confiscated their cameras but later returned all of their equipment.

Threats against forest activists continue… so does protection.

Since then, at least two important complaints were submitted by Cambodian citizens and three reporters have been threatened due to their activities linked to the forest. According to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), three forest activists received threats in two different provinces. Among them, one was told on the phone “properties can earn, but life cannot”. He was patrolling in Kratie province, where the situation of wood trafficking is more and more serious. “No action has been taken by the competent authorities. But hectares of forest have been destroyed,” according to CCHR.  “Activists patrolling the forest usually receives threats, but they are always different and often, they became the motivation for activists to move on to protect forest for the public interest,” continues a CCHR spokesperson.

In September 2012, Ek Sokunthy, who was working for the small Khmer weekly Ta Prum, told the Phnom Penh Post that he had been beaten on the head and body with a pistol and wooden stick in the north-eastern province of Ratanakiri, notorious for illegal logging activities. Ten days before this incident, Sokunthy took a picture of illegal logging activities in the forest after he was called by villagers who witnessed them. He was then threatened by a local “powerful” man and ordered not to publish anything about it. The article titled “Illegal logging traders still continue their activities in Angdong Meas” was eventually published in Ta Prum the week of September 18, stating the involvement of the district religion office and the former commune police chief.

Two weeks before, the journalist Heng Serei Oudom was found dead in the trunk of his car after he wrote a story and accused a local military police officer of extorting money from an illegal logger in the area. The local police took a military officer and his wife into custody the day after the murder, though both denied their involvement. Heng Serei Oudom brings the list of victims from reporting on environmental issues to 96 since 2002 in Southeast Asia.

A profitable business

According to the United Nations and Interpol, between 50% and 90% of logging activities in the Amazon basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia are illegal and organized crime is now moving to illegal logging, bringing $30 to $100 billion annually worldwide. And a recent report from the UN Environment Programme concluded that up to 90 percent of the world’s logging industry was in one way or another outside the law. 2012 was one of the most violent years for green activists. According to the report, it can become endemic.

For Derek Mead, who published a video five days ago on the publication Vice, ” the trade won’t go away until more people are made aware of how destructive it is”.

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A positive move? Cambodian court drops Sonando charges, adds more Thu, 07 Mar 2013 07:33:19 +0000 On March 6, 2013, after a two-day hearing, the prosecutor asked the Phnom Penh Court of Appeals Court to drop the two main insurrection charges against Cambodian activist Mam Sonando. The judge added a new charge for “inciting the clearing of  forest land” and Sonando is still facing an indirect insurrection charge, but overall it was a good day for human rights in Cambodia.

Mam Sonando enters an appeals court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday. Pic: AP.

On Tuesday Ruppert Abbott, researcher for Amnesty International, told ABC that when he monitored the first trial he could see no evidence to show that an insurrection took place in Kratie, let alone that Mr Sonando instigated it. This time, the prosecutor shared this opinion and asked the Appeal Court to drop all criminal charges of inciting people to bear arms and insurrection and illegal interference in public duties.

A positive move

“This is a positive move,” said Sa Sovan, one of Sonando’s lawyers. “The conviction of the municipal court was a wrong interpretation and a stipulated assertion.”

Mam Sonando’s wife also said she was hoping for the best and that the decision of the Prosecutor was positive and proves the Court was listening to the case. According to the prosecutor, he decriminalized the case because he was told to do so.

The three remaining charges are now: fomenting opposition to government officials (article 28 of the Penal Code), and opposition to legal authority (art 504 and 609). These two are not criminal charges but correctional ones, that could still condemn Sonando up to at least four years in jail. Moreover, before leaving the courtroom, the Judge added a charge of”inciting the clearing of forest land and claiming owvership, which could equate to five to 10 years in jail according to the Foresty Law. Ou Virak, Director of the Cambodian Center for Human fears that this decision can lead to set him as an example for all land activist trying to defend their rights, especially now that the National Assembly elections are coming.

“It is not applicable because the judge cannot change the accusation without my client being able to defend himself,” said Sa Sovan.

Nothing new

For a day and a half, all five people who spoke in front of the Court , for the defence and the prosecution, declared they did not meet Mam Sonando. Some of them saw pictures of him that members from the Association of Democrats were showing in Kratie province. Some others hadn’t even heard of him. On March 6th, the prosecutor said “there is not anu reason to believe that Mam Sonando incited residents to clear land or use weapons illegally against the government officials”.

However, Mam Sonando is still accused of instigating an insurrection movement in Kratie province, related to the conflict between the villagers of Proma and the Russian firm Casotim. This accusation lies under the article 28,  where instigation allows for Mam Sonando to be charged with crimes he not personally commit. He faces the same penalty as the perpetrator of the underlying crime, Bun Ratha. “However, according to the law, there needs to be a direct and precise order given by the instigator to the perpetrator. There is no proof of this here”, said Sa Sovan.

“Only asking for democracy”

In an exclusive interview published by FrontLine Defenders on March 6th, Mam Sonando said that he knows that if he succeeds, Cambodia will succeed too. “But the government wants to be the only one to do so and does not accept any auxiliary. If I [lack the courage to fight back], Cambodia will not be helped. I am only asking for democracy,” he said.

On Beehive Radio, Mam Sonando was hosted one show where he was telling the listeners about his trips to the provinces and how he could help people. According to his staff, he was informing Cambodian citizens of their rights and explaining the constitution.

During the appeal trial, he was asked whether he met with victims of land grabbing from Kratie province. He acknowledged he did, but did not help them as they did not have any land title for their land.

“They were occupying it illegally and I am not helping people who do not comply with the law,” he stated.

“His words are direct and the government is not happy with him. The case of Mam Sonando is a 100% political”, said Kem Sokha, the president of the Human Rights Party in an interview last week.

“For example, when the government says it will arrest him, he says ‘I am not scared’ […] but the Cambodian leaders want people to be more flexible,” he continued.

Sonando’s wife confided that he came back to the country in July knowing he could be arrested. But he wanted to show Cambodians he was honest and would not avoid his responsibility.

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Cambodians rally as Mam Sonando appeal date approaches Wed, 27 Feb 2013 06:26:11 +0000 The appeal hearings in the trial of Beehive radio station owner Mam Sonando will start on March 5. By that time he will have spent 234 days in prison. Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in jail for “secession” on October 1, 2012. Since then, the Cambodian civil society and the international community have been mobilizing, asking the Cambodian authorities for his release.

During the Bon Pka celebrations on February 24, Din Panhara, Sonando’s wife, organized a special ceremony to keep his husband’s promise; raise funds to contribute to building a school in the Kompon Cham province. “My husband went to this village several time. There are over 300 children there who do not have access to education. Today, people are coming to contribute to this project.” Each of them can make a donation and buy the “calendar of justice” counting the days since Sonando has been imprisoned. According to Panhara, more than 8,000 have already been sold.

Mam Sonando. Pic: AP.

A premonitory dream?

“I know Mam Sonando will be released around the end of the month. Buddha told it to me in my dreams,” declares an enthusiastic admirator of Beehive and its owner as she enters the pagoda. People gathered there are generally confident in the upcoming appeal. Smiles are everywhere, calendars are proudly waved and postcards are snapped up like hotcakes. They will be brought to him by his wife during a next visit. The most educated gathered here start to frenetically write all the wishes of a lot of their fellows.

“Mam Sonando never stops helping the poor. If someone is starving or sick, he will help. Once, somebody swallowed a fishbone and almost died of it. Sonando paid for his hospital fees. That is the reason why people like him; he always helps the ones with nothing,” states Chhay Yet, 85, years old from Kandal province.

After the ceremony, 10 people took the microphone to express their support to the radio and Sonando.

“Do not be scared. Our country has laws. If Cambodians join together, then our country will be better developed,” said Panhara to the assembly. Pannary Huon, the Under-Secretary for the Association of Democrats (AOD) that Sonando created, also distributed posters from the Frontline Defenders‘ organization. This Ireland-based organization defending the defenders of human rights nominated Mam Sonando for its 2013 Award at the end of January.

“I think it is important that people know about it,” she explained. Sonando’s sentence left a bitter taste at the AOD.

The tribunal concluded that he fomented a protest movement in Broma, a village located on the border with Vietnam. There, the local authorities shot at the protesters and killed a 14-year-old girl.

“The Cambodian authorities are trying to suppress our activities as they are afraid of losing what they got since they took power,” said one member of the AOD. “The government is missing a lot of issues here, especially when it comes to respecting and implemeting the law. The Association is there to complete what the government needs to do. We were granted a license from the Ministry of Interior to do so.”

Calls for justice

On February 21 Amnesty International launched a petition to ask for Sonando’s release. The day before, the American Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner reiterated his call for Sonando’s release in front of the Cambodian authorities as he was visiting Phnom Penh. Earlier this month, the French Prime Minister also mentioned it to the Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sonando holds a French passport and owns two businesses in Paris.

This echoes the wishes expressed by Secretary of State Hilary-Clinton in July 2012, by President Barack Obama in November as well as by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, in December. In October, the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch also encouraged  the donors to insist on Mam Sonando’s release and realize that Cambodia was becoming a “one-party country”.

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Land grab crisis: Cambodia sells off its people’s future Fri, 15 Feb 2013 05:28:52 +0000 Where will Cambodia find enough land for the next generation?

This question is at the center of a report published by the Cambodian NGO Adhoc on February 14, 2013. Entitled “A turning point?”, the report explains that the Cambodian government will not be able to grant as many land concessions as it has done in the past for almost half of the arable land is now private. The remaining land is made up of protected areas, islands and cancelled concessions, but exceptions to the law become the rule.

Cambodians, who were evicted from Phnom Penh's Boueng Kak lake area, seen holding a rally last November. Pic: AP.

The gap between the law and the reality

In theory, before being granted an economic land concession (ELC), a private owner should meet five criteria regarding land classification, land use planning, impact assessment, resettlement and compensation (ELC Sub-Decree – Article 4). However, Adhoc states that “companies often start clearing the land even before sub-decrees have been issued and contracts have been signed“. For example, in Kratie province, the TTY company did not consult any of the affected people before claiming almost 10,000 hectares to grow cassava. According to the report, “powerful businessmen and officials have been able to benefit from multiple concessions through companies in which they (or they relatives) have shares or hold a management position“.

This is a transition to the case of sugarcane plantations owned by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Senator Ly Yong Phat, who was granted a 10,000-ha concession for his Phnom Penh Sugar Co. Ltd in Kompong Speu province. As of today, 27 villagers are facing charges mostly for encroachement on private property. Six days ago (on Feb 9th), as villagers were demonstrating outside the court to demand the release of a community activist and submit a petition. However, 40 Royal Cambodian Army Forces (RCAF) troops were ordered to quash the protest and the commander threaten to open fire if representatives tried to enter the court to submit the petition. Recently, local media also reported that children were also exploited on these concessions owned by the Phnom Penh Sugar Co Ltd.

Protected areas are already at stake

While the report states that the only land left are protected areas, islands and cancelled concessions, it also refers to a north-eastern province in Cambodia where protected areas have already been vastly exploited.

In December 2012, Adhoc received the information that two Vietnamese companies have been engaging in illegal logging activities, clearing 200 X 3,000 meters and exporting high-value timber to Vietnam. One of the companies had surveyed the land and acknowledged that clearing the land would affect members of the Jarai community leaving in the area. Some of them were told by the local authorities that they would be charged $700 to $800 per ha to obtain titles for their land if they did not change their claim from collective to private land ownership. This classification forbids the community to exercise its right collectively on its land. Early January, the Jarai community found that approximately 1,500 graves have been destroyed – some exhumed – by bulldozers. In exchange, the company agreed to pay $4,000 as a compensation to the community.

Similarly, more than 6,000 ha were granted to the CRCK company to grow rubber over four provinces in Cambodia. This concession encroaches on Prey Lang forest and the company destroyed large tracts of primary, evergreen forest. And the list is now bigger with the projected construction of large dams in Cambodia, putting fish stocks and fisheries at risk when Cambodia is the biggest consumer of freshwater fish in the world.

Cambodian courts are strong with the weak and weak with the strong […]. The authorities cannot expect to resolve the land crisis this way,” state the report.

Mixed results from governmental initiatives

Aside from protests and conflicts, the results of unregulated development are landlessness and poverty related issues. Adhoc highlights similarities with the 19th century European economic processes involving rural exodus and the transformation of a large part of the peasantry into landless wage-laborers, and states that “the granting of additional concessions despite the moratorium would mean that promises made to private companies are more important than promises made to the Cambodian people“.

On paper, there are means of settling disputes related to land. Victims of land grabbing can seek intervention from various political or administrative officials and their bodies at all levels from the villages to the provinces. When the results of investigations state a dispute over registered land, it must be submitted to the courts. But in reality, Adhoc reports cases where the victims simply lack the resources to initiate the proceedings, where significant imbalances of power between land grabbers and their victims force the latter to accept unfair solutions and where protests are systematically suppressed.

In 2012, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen adopted two measures to solve the “land crisis”. One is aimed to stop granting land concessions and review the exisiting ones (Directive 001), and the other is an accelerated land titling program. However, Adhoc denounces important loopholes. For example, 33 ELCs were granted since may 2012 covering over 208,000 ha since the Directive 001 does not apply to any concessions that was under consideration as of May 2012. And, while hundreds of thousands of families have been granted a new land title through the accelerated program, disputed areas have been left outside the scheme. Adhoc states that: “people who are the most in need of land titles (to protect themselves against eviction threats) will therefore not receive them“.

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The plight of Cambodia’s garment workers Fri, 01 Feb 2013 08:50:09 +0000 Cambodia Strike

A striking garment worker participates in a rally in Phnom Penh. Pic: AP.

Striking workers call on Wal-Mart to take responsibility after supplier skips country owing $200,000 in wages

On Thursday morning garment workers gathered outside the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to follow up with the petition they submitted on Januray 18th, 2013 asking the US government to pressure Wal-Mart. They are owed  $200,000 by Kingsland, a Hong Kong-based company that started to operate in Cambodia 10 years ago and worked with Wal-Mart and H&M suppliers.

Yon Sok Lein, one of the Kingsland’s workers, said that there was no feedback from the US Embassy. “We would like Wal-Mart to be held accountable for this situation. It is a big and powerful company. We would also like the owner of the factory to be held accountable but he left the country”. As a garment worker for Kingsland, Yon Sok Lein was working on 1,000 pieces of underwear per day from 7 AM to 4 PM for $120 to $130 per month. There are 400,000 garment workers in Cambodia and 90% of them are women.

A video published on January 20th by the independent Cambodian media Voice of Democracy, shows garment workers outside Kingsland factory protesting for not having been paid and blaming H&M and Wal-Mart. They have been striking since January 3rd, 2013.

The workers have been told since September that they did not have to come to work anymore due to the lack of orders but that they would be paid 50%  of they salary until work would resume in January. But they never received the money before the owners declared bankruptcy and left the country.

According to Wal-Mart, it stopped Kingsland’s products in 2011. H&M in June 2012. However, the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) gathered testimonies from worker stating that  H&M alterations and quality checks continued until the first week of September, 2012 and that Walmart production continued until the same week. According to CLEC, the H&M representative admitted it.

A 1997 progressive labor law?

Kingsland is famous for violating legislation and it is not the first time such protests have occurred. In 2008, 16 workers were fired for belonging to a union that was not recognized by the company. Despite attempts to negociate their reintegration, none of them were able to go back to work, suggesting that belonging to an independent union was still problematic at Kingsland. This is in violation of the 1997 labor law.

Cambodia still portrays an “ethical” label to international brands. The country stands out among garment-exporting countries as one where working conditions for factory workers have improved. Since the 1990s, Cambodia has shaped a worker-friendly reputation to be able to compete internationally. In 1997, a labor law was adopted that recognized rights of Cambodian workers, such as ” the minimum wage must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity”.   Today, the garment industry is the first source of income in the country with more than US$4 billion profit a year. In 1999, the country also agreed to submit an extensive labor inspection program that would be coordinated by the International Labour Organization (ILO). In 2005, it became a full member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Argued responsibilities?

Interviewed earlier this month by The Cambodia Daily, Nick Rudikoff, global affairs coordinator of Warehouse Workers United (WWU), a U.S.-based union representing 5.5 million workers in different sectors, said that “Kingsland’s failure to inform the workers’ of their situation is an example of Wal-Mart not making sure members of its supply chain treat workers in a fair manner”.

Legally the factory owners are responsible for the workers’ severance pay and working conditions. But as Dave Welsh, the head of the American Centre for International Labor Solidarity, told Voice of Democracy last August “it really is the brands putting the squeeze around the world on the industry. But the industry doesn’t mind, because the people who suffer are not the owners, the people who suffer are the workers.”

The International Labour Organization (ILO) established the “Better Factories Cambodia” program (ILO-BFC) to monitor the compliance to the 1999 US – Cambodia bilateral trade agreement, generating reports about working conditions in Cambodian factories. According to the latest one, there is a need  for a new industry-wide agreement as “the number of strikes over the reporting period is twice as many for the same reporting period [a year before]”.  The reports records 27 strikes and 16 mass faintings between November 2011 and June 2012. This represents more than 2,000 women fainting.

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Cambodia: Getting to the root of corruption Fri, 21 Dec 2012 04:55:50 +0000 Transparency International published its 2012 Index on December 5. Cambodia is ranked 157th among 176 countries, above Burma and Laos in the region.  Unsurprisingly, the government has rejected the report. For Preap Kol, executive director of the Cambodian Chapter for Transparency International, “it is understood that it is to save its face”.

Since it was created in 2010, TIC has been cooperating with the anti-corruption unit (ACU) to work on education and outreach towards corruption. TIC wants to promote the ACU’s visibility to handle corruption case and will soon be launching the first legal service center to help people submit requests and handle cases more effectively. To him, corruption is “a symptom of a social issue” and will not be totally eradicated. “Every country has some. Putting it under control is the most important.”

Who is corrupt in Cambodia?

“The majority of the people fall into corruption as a receiver or as payer of a bribe. Corruption is systematic and it is a way of life.  But if most of the people are involved in corruption and if everyone is arrested and guilty according to the law: how many more prisons should we be building in Cambodia?

“Over the last 20 years, I have seen it to be embedded in the culture and the mind of people. While there is no improvement on the culture , there are some improvements on the actions. As an example, an anti-corruption law has been passed and the anti-corruption Unit (ACU) has been established to implement it.

“Hence, for the first time in Cambodia, criminals cases have been brought to the public’s attention; especially from officials in the land management and judiciary systems. More civil society is now engaged in it. But corruption still tops the list of news topics everywhere and it is the core problem for Cambodia. This is why fighting it should be a top priority for the country.”

What do you think of the role of the ACU on the ground?

“Its independence can be questioned. This suspicion is normal given who is heading the unit’s key positions. But there is no official evidence against it. By creating this Unit, the government wants to focus on:

  1. education and outreach about integrity and the effect of corruptions;
  2. prevention by adopting mechanisms to minimize corruption from occurring;
  3. law enforcement and bringing the people to court”

Can you tell me if you observed any improvement between 2010 and 2012?

“Based on our 2012 Index, there had been some small improvements. This means we are going in the right direction and 1 years from now, Cambodia will go up in the ranking. People and civil society should play an active role. If this is the case, then there is hope.”

How is it possible to rely on the Judiciary to bring people to Justice if they are the most affected by corruption?

“In 2012, 4 cases involve the judiciary. there is a very significant problem of check and balances. Embassies and foreign donors are now trying to be the check and balances. Unfortunately, the problem lies at the top of the executive, legislative and judiciary systems. There is also the fact that many elected parliamentarians are serving as ministers. The Prime Minister is also a member of Parliament. How can they have a neutral view of their conduct from the legislative perspective?”

Is it true that some officials have to pay $ 5,000/month to keep their position in Cambodia ?

“Well, if one says it is $ 5,000, it could be much more in reality for some very senior positions. I would also add that you will not see high ranking officials taking their families far from home during Khmer New Year holidays… they are all at home to receive their “gifts”. This is when the money comes in for people to be able to keep their jobs. It is considered as a gift; a gratitude from subordinates to their superiors. No law says gratitude of that kind is prohibited.”

What do you think can be done?

“The Constitution should be amended to improve check and balance and more laws are needed. For example, the Access to Information law is crucial to allow access to information and more transparency. It was drafted and discussed once but now it is put on hold. It would allow budgets, national expense and public service reports to actually be published and accessible to civil society and the public.

“For this matter. T.I.C has a different approach from some other organisations regarding corruption. We are trying to make people speak out about corruption. Some other organisations are more cautious than TIC; the U.N is one among others for they think the reaction of the government can be negative when using the word corruption or anti-corruption in a dialogue with the government. But at TIC, we put the words out there and want to break through the nerve of society and enable them to speak the word corruption and anti-corruption comfortably. We would like to bring a movement together to see more people and institutions work together to fight corruption to make civil society stronger in demanding for accountability and transparency.”

What do you think of Burma being more corrupt than Cambodia and now being one of the “sexiest” country for international donors?

“The Burmese transition to democracy is very attractive and there is more investment.  It is just like Cambodia in the 90’s. The difference is however that in the 90’s, Cambodia focused on rehabilitation and humanitarian aid. Money was pouring . It is only in the last decade that the relief assistance declined in favor of promoting human rights and governance. In Burma, the context is different as respect for human rights is a condition for the foreign investments. The country will have to develop scrutiny and make sure the money benefits people. Foreign investments have their own laws about not paying bribes. I hope  these donors and investors can learn from the experience they have had in Cambodia.”

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E-victed? Further online restrictions in Cambodia Wed, 19 Dec 2012 03:29:49 +0000 It has been a month now since some Internet cafés were ordered to close throughout Cambodia. Representatives of civil society fear for the future of the Internet in Cambodia and the rise of online repression.

In a circular signed by the Minister of Telecommunications on November 16, 2012, Internet cafes located within 500 meters of a school have to close. As it was reported in the local media, the  minister said that “students can learn new technology as long as [it] is legal”. According to the decree, Internet cafes cannot allow their clients to gamble, porn surf, visit websites selling drugs or commit crimes that threaten national security or “traditions”.

In an English translation made available by the local Human Rights NGO Licadho, it is said that “many criminals have used telecommunication mean[s] to commit […] offenses such as inter-border criminal, robbery, murder, extortion, illegal drug trafficking, human trafficking, economic crime, illegal running telecommunication service, pornography and other immoral act, which has affected our tradition and social morality.”

According to the organizations Reporters Without Borders and the Cambodian Center for Independent media, the text lacks definitions, which is a danger for online freedom of expression. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights also published a press release insisting on the fact that “instead  of  imposing  restrictions,  the  Cambodian  government  should  make  use  of emerging technologies to engage with the Cambodian people and allow more dialogue and discussion, rather than seeking to silence opinion and dissent.”

Is Facebook affecting tradition and “social morality”?

Last October, and for the first time in Cambodia, a 19-year-old girl was found murdered, apparently by a person she met on the social networking website Facebook. Does it make Facebook responsible for the murder ?

Larry Magid, a tech journalist and Internet safety advocate contributing to argues however that, “if [threats] weren’t made on Facebook they would probably have been made elsewhere — on the phone, in email, in a chat room, on Twitter or — even more likely — in school or another physical location. If this murder had been the result of an angry phone exchange in the UK, I don’t think the media would be calling it a ‘British Telecom Murder’.”

In order to show how restrictive this circular can be in Cambodia, the Urban Voice Focus Campaign “Save the Internet Cafés”  was launched last week to draw attention to the Government Circular. “Many internet cafés as well as cafés with wifi were mapped on Urban Voice already. Should the 500m prohibition radius around schools be implemented, the vast majority of internet cafés in Phnom Penh would have to close“, said Nora Lindstrom of Urban Voice in an email.

Second circular to regulate the Internet use this year

It is not the first time a worrying circular has been adopted. In February 2012, an inter-ministerial circular was adopted according to which every Internet cafe in the country has to set up surveillance cameras and any phone shop has to register callers using its services. The November circular is the second one adopted this year to regulate the Internet use.

Although this trend is worrying for human rights defenders and NGOs defending freedom of speech, nothing has been implemented on the ground yet. The November circular is however being drafted as business contracts with Internet cafés owners and warns that “[should an] internet café provider [not] follow this circulation, [the ministry], [in] cooperation with law enforcement institutions and relevant authorities will suppress and confiscate materials, and also arrest the internet café owner in accordance to law“.

As of today, a little more than 3% of Cambodians have access to the Internet in the country. According to the World Bank, this is the third-lowest score in the region. However, on a plus note, Internet usage more than doubled last year.

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Cambodia: Mam Sonando sent back to jail Mon, 17 Dec 2012 07:12:19 +0000 On December 14 the Cambodian Court of Appeals decided that Mam Sonando, the owner of the opposition radio station Beehive, will stay in prison after it rejected a first bail request since he was sentenced to 20 years in jail in October. According to his lawyer, the decision will be reconsidered in a month.


Shortly before 10am on Friday, Mam Sonando was escorted by at least 5 policemen in a room where the curtains were shut to avoid cameras. A few minutes earlier, the judge rejected his first bail request since he had been sentenced to 20 years in jail last October. During the hearing that lasted a bit longer than an hour, Mam Sonando said that his health was deteriorating in prison because of the bad conditions he had to endured and asked the judge to believe in his honesty and good judicial record. This was echoed by his lawyer, Sa Sovan, who said that if he were to be released on bail, Mam Sonando would not leave the country nor speak with journalists until his appeal is considered.

The prosecutor argued against Sonando’s release, saying the first judgement should be enough to show Mam Sonando’s guilt. The Court stated that he would not be released on the ground that the risks of influencing witnesses and disrupt public order would be too high. The judge denied him bail pursuant to articles 28, 464, 457, 504 and 609 of the Penal Code, as already brought against him by the municipal court in October.

At the end of the hearing, Rupert Abbott, presenting Amnesty International told EPA that he was “disappointed” by the result. Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights expressed his concerns for freedom of expression in Cambodia: “we are now facing a general attitude by the government to continue to repress criticisms“, he said.

Political prisoner?

While Amnesty International insisted on the fact that Mam Sonando is a “prisoner of conscience”, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia was more hesitant to draw conclusions in this case. During a press conference organized in Phnom Penh in the afternoon of the decision, Professeur Surya Subedi told journalists “this is something I would be very careful with and would come up with a formulation which is suitable in the context of Cambodia. There is no internationally agreed definition of political prisoner. Some proper work is required in this area. I will now be doing so in the future.” 

However, he confided to reporters present in the room that he visited Mam Sonando in prison earlier this week and that he was “concerned from the very beginning for the situation for freedom of expression and other rights in this country“.

I monitored his case and I have intervened with the government at the highest level possible, expressing my serious concerns. I will continue to monitor the situation and continue to point out the obligations of Cambodia to the international law,” he assured.

Small victory

For the first time in the Cambodian jurisprudence history, a first-instance bail request was accepted as valid by the Court of Appeals. “So far, we are very positive for the Court is respecting the game,” said Sa Sovan. After the hearing, he was able to request that the Court of Appeals reconsider the bail. “The fact that it will shows that there are two levels of jurisdiction in this case. We are confident for the rest of the procedure,” he concluded.

The judge stated that there were two main risks to releasing Sonando – on the ground that the court showed proves of his guilt in the first instance and the fact that he owned a the double nationality. Mam Sonando can appeal this decision.

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Cambodia considers Sonando release as UN Special Rapporteur visits Thu, 13 Dec 2012 03:18:27 +0000 A bail hearing in the case of Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando will be examined by the Court of Appeals in the Cambodian capital tomorrow. It is the first application heard for his release since he has been sentenced to a 20-year jail sentence on October 1, 2012 by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Mam Sonando

Mam Sonando. Pic: AP.

71-year-old Sonando was charged with fomenting a secessionist movement in Kratie province and was arrested in July. The sentence was heavily criticized by human rights groups at national and international levels. Mam Sonando’s case has become one of the most famous in the country. As such, newly re-elected US president Barack Obama asked Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen  for his immediate release in a bilateral meeting during his historical visit to Cambodia for the summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit on November 19.

A new defense lawyer

Lawyer Sa Sovan took over the case after Mam Sonando was sentenced and will conduct the appeal. No date has been set yet although the case moved to the Court at the end of November.  A former defense co-lawyer for Khieu Samphan from July 2008 to November 2011 in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Dr. Sa wants his strategy to remain discrete to benefit the case as much as possible.

Licadho, a local NGO defending human rights, published a report on attacks and threats against human rights defenders in the past two years in the light of the international human rights day on December 10.

Recent threats and attacks against HRDs have been overwhelmingly targeted at four main groups: community representatives entangled in land disputes; factory workers and union leaders; NGOs and NGO staff; and journalists“, stated Licadho in its press release. The organisation also identified the fact that the courts rarely issue written verdicts or substantive official justifications for the convictions as an emerging trend.

The UN  asks for improvements on freedom of expression

Mam Sonando was visited by Dr Surya Subedi, the United-Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia on December 11, according to his supporters. In an interview given to Voice of Democracy (VOD) on December 11, Dr. Subedi insisted that freedom of expression needed to be improved in the country. He told Cambodian radio: “There have been achievements in some areas. For example, the controversial NGO law is being reviewed, Boeng Kak Lake disputes are being taken into account and a land titling program is under way.

However, there is not enough progress on freedom of expression, land rights and independence of the judiciary. My mandate is to follow up and offer my help to the Cambodian government for my recommendations to be implemented.”

The day before, the European Union’s Ambassador to Cambodia urged the authorities to take Dr. Subedi’s recommendations into account. On September 25, the UN Special Rapporteur issued a report in which he states “criminalization of land activists and human rights defenders is particularly worrying, as freedom of expression and assembly is crucial to a well-functioning democratic society“. No mention of Mam Sonando’s case appears in  the report dedicated to economic and other land concessions in Cambodia.

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2012: ‘A really bad year for human rights in Cambodia’ Thu, 29 Nov 2012 05:53:26 +0000 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.

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In Cambodia, Obama meets people’s expectations Tue, 20 Nov 2012 05:27:38 +0000 For the past weeks, US President Barack Obama’s visit to Cambodia has drawn many expectations from Cambodian citizens and human rights advocates. It was never clear though whether the president would raise human rights issues during his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Thankfully, he did. Prior to his arrival and since the day he was reelected, victims of illegal evictions have been protesting in Phnom Penh to ask the U.S  for help.

Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama walks to his seat at the East Asia Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday. Pic: AP.

Last week, Human Rights Watch told The Washington Post,““We’ve been yelling at the White House for a month and a half that [Obama] shouldn’t go because the human rights situation in Cambodia is so bad.”  Last week eight people were arrested for “national security” reasons after they painted “S.O.S” messages and displayed Obama’s pictures on the roof of their house around the airport to draw his attention.

A dialogue of the deaf on human rights

It was the first time a sitting U.S President visited the country and he “spoke for no less than 10 seconds before the last of the reporters had been herded out“, including Obama’s own press pool, according to the daily newspaper The Phnom Penh Post. According to U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, President Obama devoted his entire meeting on human rights issues and particularly about the need for free and fair elections. Prior to his arrival, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan spoke to the press. The Cambodia Daily reports that Mr. Siphan believed that Obama will learn from Cambodia: “I think that Obama, what he learned [is] from the book in school. But we Cambodians, started over here, so Obama will learn real experience in the field [about] democracy and human rights developing in this country.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen stressed that his country still had a better human rights record than some of his regional partners. According to the Cambodia daily, the Prime Minister said that reports on land evictions were “overblown”, that “politics in the country is wide open” and that there are “no political prisoners”.

According to Phay Siphan, there is an ASEAN “human rights quality” that cannot be susbsituted by importing from the U.S.

ASEAN human rights quality

On Sunday, the 10 leaders from the ASEAN countries adopted a controversial human rights declaration. It is the first time that ASEAN adopted such a text. For Mr. Pa Ngoun Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, “it is sometimes better not to adopt anything rather than a text that worsens the situation”. Although this declaration is not binding for any country, “some states may use it as the foundation of people’s rights, when it is not binding and at a lower standard than international law,” according to Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

On November 19, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay  expressed concern that the new ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), retains language that is not consistent with international standards. “The international human rights mechanisms will continue to hold ASEAN member states to their international obligations and encourage ASEAN to strengthen further its regional human rights framework,” Pillay said.

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Cambodia: Family calls for justice as Chut Wutty case dismissed Fri, 05 Oct 2012 04:20:22 +0000 “Okay shoot me!” Chut Wutty said to In Rattana, the military officer who was threatening to kill him if he did not give away his memory stick full of pictures. That’s all the Cambodian justice system decided to disclose about the argument that preceded their killing last April 26 in the Cambodian southwestern province of Koh Kong. Both were found dead on a dirt road next to the  facilities of the logging company Timbergreen. Chut Wutty, one of the most outspoken voices against illegal logging wanted to show two Cambodia Daily reporters that the company was also processing yellow vine. In Rattana was there to protect Timbergreen property – on this logging project, military police and security guards work hands in hand.

Chut Wutty

Chut Wutty, left, stands next to a log in a jungle in Kampong Thom province in northern of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Pic: AP.

On October 4, the Koh Kong municipal court decided to drop the case of Wutty’s death but to investigate Rattana’s. The Phnom Penh Post reported that the judge argued that the “perpetrator was already dead” in the case of Wutty. According to the Court, it is clear that In Rattana shot Chut Wutty. In a move to disarm him, Ran Boroth, a security guard for Timbergreen, confirmed to the Court that he shot Rattana. But this is not the opinion of a close family member of the environmental activist: “I know In Rattana was acting normal and not fighting against Wutty. He is not the one who killed him and I don’t believe either that Ran Boroth shot In Rattana,” he told Asian Correspondent, insisting that the case should be reopened.

Deeper investigations are also requested by local NGOs in Koh Kong province. A representative for the Koh Kong branch of the human rights NGO Licadho said “what has been stated in Court is not the right version and there is still no justice for Wutty”. This was echoed by Mr. Boratino, Koh Kong representative for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc): “We are still wondering who killed Wutty and the information given was not clear enough to get justice for Wutty. Moreover, the governmental investigation committee has been changing its mind“.

According to the first statement given by the Koh Kong authorities, bullets ricocheting off of Wutty’s vehicle killed Rattana or Wutty had fired first. Then, the government line became that Rattana killed himself when he realized he killed Wutty. On May 1, an investigation committee was set up by the government after a public outcry, and concluded three days later with the version we know today. Two weeks later, a hearing was organized in Koh Kong to get one Cambodia Daily reporter’s testimony.

During the one and half hours of the October 4 hearingRan Boroth testified that he disarmed Rattana to “protect other people” but he had “no desire” to shoot him for they were friends. Police Lieutenant General Mok Chito, appointed by the government to lead the investigation, supported his statement by insisting on the fact that Boroth wanted to protect the two journalists. In an account given by Olesia Plokhii, one of the Cambodia Daily reporters, she and her colleague heard “menacing military police” say “just kill them both”. Boroth supposedly confiscated the gun before Rattana could fire at them. A verdict will be given on October 8. Ran Boroth is accused of manslaughter and risks between 1 and 3 years in jail.

According to NGO monitors present among the small dozens of people attending the hearing, only 2 witnesses showed up in court out of the seven witnesses needed to shed more light on the facts. None of the medical examiners or the “masked soldier” who could be a key witness were called in by the Court .

“Nobody left the site when the shooting happened. It should be an easy case to investigate. I just wait and see. I know that justice will come for Wutty in the future,” concluded Wutty’s family member.

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Don’t tell anyone a forest is falling in Cambodia Sun, 30 Sep 2012 10:26:18 +0000 If they come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken”.

These are the words attributed to the brother of the Cambodian Prime Minister after the international NGO Global Witness published “Cambodia Family tree” in June 2007. The tree exposed how relatives of the prime minister and other senior officials had run illegal logging operations with complete impunity over a number of years.

Chut Wutty

Chut Wutty, left, stands next to a log in a jungle in Kampong Thom province in northern of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The eulogies called Wutty one of the few remaining activists in Cambodia brave enough to fight massive illegal deforestation by the powerful. The environmental watchdog was shot by a military policeman in April as he probed logging operations in one of the country's last great forests. Pic: AP/The Cambodian Center for Human Rights

As an echo to this sentiment, journalist Ek Sokunthy, who was working for the small Khmer weekly Ta Prum, told the Phnom Penh Post on September 26, that he had been beaten on the head and body with a pistol and wooden stick in the north-eastern province of Ratanakiri, notorious for illegal logging activities. Ten days before this incident, Sokunthy took a picture of illegal logging activities in the forest after he was called by villagers who witnessed them. He was then threatened by a local “powerful” man and ordered not to publish anything about it. The article titled “Illegal logging traders still continue their activities in Angdong Meas” was eventually published in Ta Prum the week of September 18, stating the involvement of the district religion office and the former commune police chief.

Two weeks before, the journalist Heng Serei Oudom was found dead in the trunk of his car after he wrote a story and accused a local military police officer of extorting money from an illegal logger in the area. The local police took a military officer and his wife into custody the day after the murder, though both denied their involvement. Heng Serei Oudom brings the list of victims from reporting on environmental issues to 96 since 2002 in Southeast Asia.

Earlier this month, Patrick Alley, one of the three founding directors of Global Witness, told the international French radio network Radio France International that “since we started investigating, we know that illegal logging and high ranking officials have always been linked. When concessions were attributed to foreign firms, the exploitation of the forest has always been run by sub-contracted firms with connections to high-ranking officials or the military”.

That is how the Chinese-owned firm Timbergreen was licensed to clear the reservoir for the nearby dam project under construction by China National Heavy Machinery Corporation. It is also known to be protected by the military and to have a permit to process yellow vine.  On October 4, one of their security employees will appear in the Koh Kong provincial court to face allegations that he shot a military police officer on April 26. He was apparently trying to disarm him after the military officer supposedly killed Chut Wutty, a well-known forest activist who had been exploring the area for three days with two reporters. On the unpaved road where he was killed, the activist wanted to show the journalists that even yellow medicinal wine was trafficked. Villagers also reported that Timbergreen is paying people to selectively log rosewood. In this region of Cambodia, which the US Embassy called “the Wild West”, wood is not the only product that will be sold: sand, wildlife, land… everything is subject to shady schemes.

Illegal logging in the region

During the civil war, cross-border trafficking with Thailand was bringing in 10 to 20 million dollars per month. Although the amount remains undisclosed, Thai officials are also turning a blind eye to Cambodians illegally entering Thai forests. In January 2012, the Thai department of special investigations (DSI) claimed that wildlife officials were “awarding Cambodians a concession to cut the trees” in a national park near the Cambodian border. It has become a growing concern to Phnom Penh and Bangkok as Thai soldiers have killed 38 Cambodian loggers in the first six months of 2012.

In a report published by Global Witness, 50 environmental activists were killed in the Philippines since 2002 and no investigation has been conducted on any of the cases. In this country, illegal logging directly contributes to magnifying damaging floods to the extent that the President ordered a nationwide crackdown in 2004 and stated that “Illegal logging must now be placed in the order of most serious crimes against our people. And late 2011, when floods killed more than 1000 people in Southern Philippines, the point where the river joins the sea was blocked with logs. “I blame the loggers for this,” said a resident to the BBC. “If it was just water it would have flowed through and out to sea.” In the 1990s, the Philippines counted 5 million hectares of forests already denuded, and a deforestation rate of 119,000 hectares per year.  Like in Cambodia, the Philippines has given concessions and issues permits to logging companies and reporting about it can be dangerous. In June, one journalist was threatened for his story on illegal logging by a businessman who had used an illegal certificate to transport wood.

According to the United Nations and Interpol, between 50% and 90% of logging activities in the Amazon basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia are illegal and organized crime is now moving to illegal logging, bringing $30 to $100 billion annually worldwide.

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Cambodia steps up Internet surveillance Thu, 30 Aug 2012 06:42:54 +0000 This article was published on August 30th, 2012 and has been modified on September 29th, 2012. In the previous version, a quote was wrongly attributed to Mr. Klein that has been removed. In the context of this inter-ministerial regulation, Mr Klein thinks that “some people are dangerous” and that the Internet is also used for criminal actions.

As Burma loosens its grip  on the media, Cambodia has begun to rank high among the countries repressing internet and telephone freedom in the name of national security, safety and social order. It is still not comparable to China or Vietnam, but Cambodia is moving in the wrong direction.

Last February, the Kingdom of Wonders adopted an “inter-ministerial circular”, according to which every Internet cafe in the country has to set up surveillance cameras and any phone shop has to register callers using its services. According to an unofficial translation obtained by the Asian Correspondent, the circular is meant to “promote protection of national security, safety and social order for the country”. Even though nothing has been implemented thus far, the circular is a threat to every phone and Internet user in the country.

“This is not a law. The authorities simply decided to do whatever they want to regulate online content in the country only because it could violate khmer culture,” stated Norbert Klein, the “founding father” of the Internet in Cambodia and now the head of the Cambodia chapter of the Internet Society. To him,  the circular is a “means of intimidation for Internet users more than a means to protect their safety “.

In 1990, Norbert Klein connected Cambodia to tan email service at the back of what is today an always-full restaurant in the heart of Phnom Penh, where NGO workers and the expat population mix. At that time, he wanted to help one of his colleague to complete an online fellowship. With a Colombian email program and a Singaporian modem it took them weeks to get connected and finally read and receive emails. Moreover, since the connection was asking for stable and steady supply, the electricity was generated by a Vietnamese truck battery stationed outside the house. At that time, never  Klein would never have imagined that the Internet in Cambodia could deal with censorship. After all, the only censor they faced in 1990 was the price: $5 per minute of connection.

But then came human rights defenders like the Venerable Loun Sovath using online tools to advocate for a cause, scandals arose when the behaviors created by the Internet attempted to cult and religion and the  feared Jasmine Revolution started in neighbouring countries.  As of today, Cambodia has a bit more than 3% of its population online with one of the quickest rates of growth in the region since it is more than twice the number registered in 2011. These are some of the reasons behind the Internet crackdown, which is nothing but a simple agreement that the government can claim at any moment and that consulted no elected member.

According to the inter-Ministerial circular signed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Post and Telecommunications, past experiences […] have shown that criminals and offenders always used telecommunications services such as mobile phones, fixed phones, VoIP and Internet as a means to commit terrorism, trans-boundary crimes, robberies, kidnapping, murders, drug trafficking, human trafficking, economic offenses, illegal installment of and illegal corporation of all forms of telecommunications service, broadcasting of obscene pictures and debauchery, which affect national customs, traditions and social good moral values.” For these reasons, all locations serving telephone and Internet services shall be equipped with closed circuit television camera and shall store footage data of users for at least 3 months. Telephone service corporation owners along public roads shall [also] record National Identity Cards of any subscriber”.

As of today, there are more than 19 million sim card holders in Cambodia. And it is still very difficult to get an ID card for Cambodian nationals. For the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, which organizes “good governance” forums in the country, the first obstacle to possess a national id card is the price. There is no fixed economic value to it and it can vary from $2.5 to $50.

According to the Ministry of Interior there are  9,27866 Cambodian holding ID cards.  What does this circular mean for the almost ten million Cambodians with sim cards but no ID ?

The will to control telecommunications is not new

This February circular is not the first attempt to control the use of telecommunications. However, it shows once again that the Ministry of Information is excluded from the decision and seems to be less relevant when it comes to regulation. In 2010, the same Ministry of Post and Telecommunications attempted to get the monopoly over the Internet cable industry in the country. There are about 30 internet service providers in the country and 10 phone operators, which causes a loss of profit to the state-owned services. To solve this, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications attempted to direct all international internet traffic through Telecom Cambodia, which would have charged other operators a transmission fee. However this time, because the ministry of information went publicly against it, it had to be abandoned.

Moreover, it has only been five years since the use of the peer-to-peer software Skype has been authorized. Even if it was possible to connect to it, it was still illegal for the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications was loosing money. This sounds like a false argument since the people using Skype were the ones who could not afford a phone call. There was a Cambodian version of Skype but its lack of popularity among the high ranking society and its difficulty to be used made the government give it in.

For most of human rights defenders, Internet remains a free space where sensitive topics can be discussed. For Chak Sopheap, online activist and contributor to the network Global Voices online, Internet is a “digital democracy”, which should be put in place in reality, outside of a computer screen. Internet activists in Cambodia are being more effective to advocate for themselves and denounce human rights violations. For example, when Loun Sovath records them, he get a double answer; the international community takes an interest while the Cambodian authorities arrest him. According to Ou Virak, from the Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR), “activists use more the Internet during protests for example. They can advocate for themselves online, especially through Facebook. Before the Internet became popular, media were the target of the government. Today, activists are”.

This circular is not only limited to online and mobile content and usage but also to radio stations since “any radio communication wave system corporation shall require permission from the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications”. The radio’s mission is mainly defined as a “public service”. Therefore, the decision maker should be an institution and not a private corporation. This could therefore apply to any independent media trying to set up as a private company to own airtime and a frequency.

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Mam Sonando arrest: Cambodia silences a journalist Tue, 24 Jul 2012 08:58:28 +0000 Franco-Khmer radio journalist Mam Sonando was arrested on Sunday, July 15, and accused of “secessionism” by the Kratie province authorities. He is currently waiting for his trial in Pey Sor Jail, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. According to most local activists, this accusation is a pretext to silence one of the most popular voices in the country.

“Whoever stands up to love the nation and protect the country is always short lived. And it is my turn this time,” Mam Sonando told Voice of America before coming back to Cambodia from his trip to France, Switzerland and the U.S. This realism cost him his freedom four days later, once international attention left the country with Hillary Clinton and ASEAN dignitaries.

Mam Sonando is the owner and director of Beehive radio in Phnom Penh, known to broadcast programs from opposition and civil society organizations.  A lot of Cambodian citizens also know his face from trips he takes to the provinces with the Democrat Association to explain their rights to citizens. Although he was out of the country at the time, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for his arrest on June 26, holding him partly responsible for organizing a land grab protest in Kratie province that cost the life of a 14-year-old girl in May.

Soak Am Oeun, Mam Sonando’s lawyer, started to read the accusation dossier  on July 19. To him, it is not clear how his client has been linked to the secessionist movement in Kratie province.

“Only two people are blaming Mam Sonando for ordering people from Prama to strike against land grabbing,” he said.  “I also read statements of persons who were arrested and charged by the government after the protest in Prama, saying they protested because they listened to Mam Sonando’s words during a meeting at his house.”

But Mam Sonando says that he meets many people every day and doesn’t remember if this was the case.

“I still don’t believe the accusation of secessionism. In an American court, Mam Sonando would be free and the dossier would not prove enough. But in Cambodia, one cannot predict what might happen,” the lawyer concluded.

Ou Virak , the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, is helping Mam Sonando by providing lawyer’s fees. Although he could not visit Mam Sonando in jail yet, he told Asian Correspondent that Sonando was better treated than other prisoners as he is able to buy proper food and has access to drinking water.

“But he is still in the same cell as 17 other persons, which means that he has about a half square meter to sleep in,” said Ou Virak.

Even though the Democrat Association denied any link with Mam Sonando, Ou Virak thinks there is one.

“Mam Sonando was also arrested because of Sourn Serey Ratha and more importantly other community activists who lead protests in land conflicts areas. When Mam Sonando interviewed Bun Ratha, he  did something that the government does not tolerate. This has very little to do with the Democrat Association,” he said.

More secessionist charges are being brought against community activists. For example, at least 4 villagers have been arrested in Pursat province since the beginning of the week in connection with what the authorities are calling a secessionnist plot.

 The fear of a jasmine revolution ?

In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times on July 18, Mu Sochua, opposition member of the Parliament in Cambodia and Cecilia Wikstrom, a EU Parliament member, state that “it is time the Cambodian government be held accountable for violating its people’s basic rights”.

The arrest of Mam Sonando comes after a number of  human rights abuses. In the past three months, the land activist Chut Wutty was killed, thirteen Boeung Kak lake activists were arrested and convicted, Venerable Loun Sovath was arrested and a 14-year-old girl was killed during land evictions.

For Ou Virak, this arrest is due to the government fear of instability since the Arab Spring  and Sonando’s arrest is a  faux-pas. “Hun Sen cannot stay away from the Arab Spring. Any mention of it is quite sensitive in the country […],” he said. “The government did not want to arrest Mam Sonando until he came back to Cambodia, provoking the government [after telling Voice of America that he did not fear any allegation]. All signs say anyone that rules with almost absolute control of all organs of the state will be bound to make mistakes.”

Moreover, land conflicts are sensitive in Cambodia for they cost the popularity of the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). According to the results of the last commune elections on June 3, the CPP was in difficulty in provinces known for land conflicts, grabbing and border disputes. For example Tek Nim, a 28-year-old woman, won the seat for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in Omlaing commune, embroiled in land conflict with Ly Yong Phat, a CPP senator and tycoon.

One of the latest measures taken by the Prime Minister in this regard is to send volunteers and surveyors to measure land in the whole country. Late last year,  a draft law has been released by the government on the Management and Use of Agricultural Land. On Monday, a briefing from the local NGO Licadho stated that it “could be used as legal cover for land-grabbing and for those who wish to exploit and personally profit from Cambodia’s land and resources”.

In this context, Mam Sonando’s arrest was criticized and denounced. It was locally criticized by the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) as well as 14 NGOs, and internationally by the US based NGO Human Rights Watch, the France based NGO Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Swiss-based World Organization Against Torture. On July 18, the Council of Ministers spokesman called for NGOs’ “patience”, reminding that “Mam Sonando is innocent until proven guilty”.

Mam Sonando’s wife was able to visit her husband twice twice last week and met with the French Embassy on Monday, who assured her they would be visiting Mam Sonando before the end of the month.

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