Visiting Takhmao prison

By Siena Anstis
Yesterday, I went with the LICADHO Prison Office staff to Takhmao prison on the outskirts of Phom Penh to conduct interviews with inmates and visit Leang Sokchoeun. He used to work with LICADHO, but was arrested in May 2010 and accused of involvement in the distribution of anti-government leaflets. He was charged with disinformation under Article 62 of the UNTAC law. On May 29, 2011, he will have been in prison for one year and is slated to remain incarcerated for another year. Sokchoeun’s mother was with us, bringing her son bags of fruits and vegetables. The government gives each prisoner only 0.70 USD for food per day (to learn more about prison conditions in Cambodia, read Dararith’s story). Like other prisoners, Sokchouen relies on external support to survive. Sokchouen and his lawyers have filed an appeal, but they have not yet received any information on its status.

Shortly after Sokchoeun’s sentencing, LICADHO published this briefing paper on the “Role of the Cambodian Judiciary in Political Cases.” The paper highlights a number of irregularities in Sokchouen’s trial that demonstrate how the government, the police and the courts work together to punish Cambodian activists. Another report from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), on the situation of human rights and democracy in Cambodia in 2011, underlines that “the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence continues to be one of the most important factors preventing Cambodia from developing a fair, just and inclusive society based on the rule of law.”

Takhmao is Cambodia’s ‘model prison,’ built with funding from the Australian government through their Cambodia Criminal Justice Project. The Prison Fellowship, a Born Again Christian NGO founded by former Nixon aide, Charles Colson, also provides some educational programs for inmates. Juvenile, male and female prisoners live in separate areas, which is rare in Cambodian prisons. Despite these benefits, this prison is still 332 per cent over its capacity.

Prisoners hang on bars as we walk by to the visiting area. Some stand in small groups outside. I am told that each prisoner gets about 1-2 hours of exercise per day. However, corruption in Cambodia is pervasive and it is not clear whether this is a privilege that inmates pay the prison guards for, or whether it is a rule that gets enforced regardless.

Overcrowding in prisons is one of many problems in the Cambodian judicial and penal systems. Another disturbing issue documented by LICADHO here is that prisoners must pay for transportation to their trials. Many prisoners are poor and cannot afford this fee and thus are tried in absentia. That same report by LICADHO also notes that less than one per cent of inmates in the prisons nearest to Phnom Penh, where the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal is located, have appeals pending.

For more information on prisons in Cambodia, you can consult LICADHO’s “Prison Issues” page.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia: Reconciling Family Norms with Sexual Orientation

I recently published a longer article on the LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia. Here is an extract:

Last week, Cambodia finished celebrating its third official lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride celebration, a week of movie screenings, workshops and other activities organized by Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK).

The celebration of LGBT rights in Cambodia has come a long way. Between 2003 and the first official LGBT pride week in 2009, these celebrations in Cambodia were limited to just one evening a year.

Collette O’Regan, a member of the organizing committee, says that the hosting of such an extensive and well-organized week, like Pride 2011, marks a new beginning for LGBT rights in Cambodia. Previously, it was mostly the ‘men having sex with men’ or MSM community that was organized and supported by donors. This necessarily excluded women and stigmatized transgender and sexual orientation by linking it to HIV/AIDS. “You can imagine what this leads to, including horrific discrimination, violence, self-harm and suicide,” she said.

You can read the full article here on Toward Freedom.

Sous Chantha, Cambodian union leader, still in pre-trial detention

By Siena Anstis

Sous Chantha’s daughter. More photos available here.

Six months ago, Sous Chantha, Cambodian union leader and former employee of United Apparel Garment factory, was arrested. This arrest happened shortly after he transferred his union’s 1000 members from the Independent & Democratic Union Federation (IDUF) to the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C-CAWDU). A brief history of the case can be found here. The gathering today – a ceremony at the adjacent wat followed by the release of balloons outside the prison where Chantha is being detained – marked the fact that he has now spent exactly six months in provisional detention on drug trafficking charges. Information gathered by LICADHO strongly suggests that Chantha was framed in retaliation for changing his union’s affiliation.

Some people at the ceremony were saying that an international boycott of the factory’s products was leading to renewed pressure on the government to resolve this situation. Shortly after Chantha’s arrest, Clean Clothes Campaign posted an “Urgent Action” request here. However, it is not clear from research online whether there is an actual international boycott in progress and what effect this is having. Also, from what I was explained today on the criminal law system in Cambodia, the Court must hold a pre-trial detention hearing now that Chantha has been detained for six months (I believe Article 208 of the Cambodian Criminal Procedure Code). In serious cases, they may extend his provisional detention.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

Cambodia’s troubling Associations & NGO law

Siena AnstisCivil society organizations in Cambodia, including LICADHO, continue to fight against the imminent passage of a repressive Associations & NGO Law.  The first draft of the law, released in December 2010, was condemned by the international community “as an assault on Cambodians’ right to freedom of association, assembly and expression.”

The second draft of the law, released on March 24, is no improvement. Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, describes some of the fundamental difficulties posed by the law in her recent article in the Guardian (UK):

Among other things, the law requires all NGOs and associations to comply with burdensome registration procedures, and outlaws those that don’t. Meanwhile, it gives authorities unbounded discretion to approve registration applications, with few substantive guidelines to steer their decisions. There is no appeals process if registration is denied.

The draft is also sloppy – one example being its apparently unlimited scope. It’s unclear whether this aspect was intentional, but the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) concluded that the law would require “every group of individuals who gather together with a differing level of frequency and perform the broadest variety of imaginable activities, from trekking and football fans, to chess and silk-weaving groups” to register. Failing to do so would be a violation of the law. (So would, apparently, founding an NGO or association without the required number of Cambodian citizen “founding members” required by the law – three and 11, respectively).

The way the law is drafted will make it easy for the government to target and shut down NGOs working on politically sensitive issues (such as, for example, land grabbing). The law will also impair the work of international organizations in Cambodia, as well as the effective disbursement of development aid funding. Without politically independent grassroots organizations operating in Cambodia, donor bodies will be deprived of important informants and partners in the development process.

The law, at first, may seem like a rather dry issue. However, it’s passing could fundamentally change the scene for civil society organizations in Cambodia. These organizations provide a necessary challenge to government action and open a space for citizens – who may feel at risk when dealing directly with government – to express themselves. They also provide important jobs that encourage young people to contribute to their communities, participate in a process of democratic development and become responsible citizens. Organizations like LICADHO protect and empower individuals who speak out against their governments.

It is also important for Canadians to pay attention. CIDA invested $17.03 million into Cambodia in 2010. Without impartial organizations to work with, some of CIDA’s main mandates – such as assisting in land reform – will be unattainable. Addressing such a politicized issue requires an independent civil society.

It should also be self-evident by now that civil society is key to democratic development. I think Hillary Clinton made a realistic assessment of the importance of civil society in a speech at the meeting of Community of Democracies in Krakow, Poland in July 2010:

[…] most countries do have a collection of activists, organizations, congregations, writers, and reporters that work through peaceful means to encourage governments to do better, to do better by their own people. Not all of these organizations or individuals are equally effective, of course. And they do represent a broad range of opinions. And, having been both in an NGO and led NGOs and been in government, I know that it’s sometimes tough to deal with NGOs when you are in the government.

But it doesn’t matter whether the goal is better laws or lower crime or cleaner air or social justice or consumer protection or entrepreneurship and innovation, societies move forward when the citizens that make up these groups are empowered to transform common interests into common actions that serve the common good (emphasis added).

Civil society organizations are helping Cambodians rebuild their nation. Without the pressure these organizations put on the government to respect human rights, the protection they offer to individuals who perform that same function, and the information they provide to development bodies, Cambodians will largely be facing this challenge alone. As Clinton points out, the outcome may be tragic:

[…] along with well-functioning markets and responsible, accountable government, progress in the 21st century depends on the ability of individuals to coalesce around shared goals, and harness the power of their convictions. But when governments crack down on the right of citizens to work together, as they have throughout history, societies fall into stagnation and decay.

Donors are central to preventing the passage of the law. “Continued opposition from western donors and international NGOs is key to preserving Cambodia’s independent civil society. That opposition must be unified, firm, and tied to the two things the government cares about – money and legitimacy,” writes Pilorge. Pressure from individuals and civil society organizations in other countries is also key. Please visit the “Oppose the Cambodian NGO & Associations Law” Facebook Page to learn more about the law.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

LGBT pride week starts in Cambodia.

Cambodia has just kicked off its 2011 LGBT Pride Week. This is the country’s third official celebration. The week began with a wonderful art show by local and international LGBT artists, as well as a short documentary on last year’s LGBT Pride Week. In the coming days, the German Cultural Centre will screen a variety of movies dealing with LGBT issues. In the kick-off speech, one of the organizers commented that the Cambodian film community has taken an interest in LGBT issues and many of the movies being shown over the week will be in Khmer.

Just this morning, I received an email from Avaaz: “24 hours to stop Uganda’s anti-gay bill.” What a difference. In Cambodia, while there is still a long way to go in terms of eliminating discrimination – as there is in Canada and most other countries – there is a growing public sphere for discussing these challenges and coming together as a community to celebrate. In Uganda, such celebration would likely have to happen in private. Please take a second to remember the murder of Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato and to sign the Avaaz petition.

Police brutality towards garment workers in Phnom Penh

Siena AnstisThe police have a track record in Cambodia of being violent towards demonstrators. This Sunday was no exception. The police broke up demonstrations by 8,000 garment factory workers leading to the injury of eight women. The police also arrested two union leaders. From Cambodian NGOs LICADHO, ADHOC, and CLEC:

May 8, 2011 – ADHOC, CLEC and LICADHO strongly condemn the government’s brutal dispersal of union garment workers in Phnom Penh on Sunday morning during an ongoing strike over a labor dispute that begun with the recent burning of the workers’ factory. The protest left at least eight workers injured, some seriously.

Approximately 2,000 workers from Mithona garment factory gathered on Sunday morning at the burnt factory on Ponchentong Road near the capital’s airport. The group intended to temporarily block the road to draw the attention of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was scheduled to return from abroad via the airport, to their situation. The action was organized by a local wing of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC).

Shortly after the workers initiated their roadblock, some 100 military police and police officers – armed with anti-riot shields, electric batons and guns – moved in to disperse the crowd. They fired warning shots into the air, and beat dozens of protesters. Police also reportedly drove motorbikes deliberately into the crowd, which was made up predominantly of women.

A total of eight female workers were taken to a local hospital for treatment. Their injuries included head wounds, trauma, and lacerations, two of which required stitches. Two female workers were also arrested: local FTUWKC factory leader Peng Chou, 38-years-old, and local FTUWKC member Meas Narin, 32-years-old.


Traditional justice systems in Cambodia?

Siena AnstisI am considering focusing my McGill-related work while in Cambodia on traditional justice systems in the country, but I have mostly come up against dead-ends in terms of research. My interest in traditional justice is based on research on the gacaca and mato oput systems in Rwanda and Uganda. Is there something similar in Cambodia? If such a structure exists, is there any relationship between the Khmer Rouge atrocities and a traditional justice system? For example, have communities considered using whatever systems might exist now to provide ‘justice’ for victims or is the ECCC the main or only focus? If not, why not?

Fortunately, I spent a couple of hours today with a Cambodian translator (who will remain anonymous) who has a fairly extensive understanding of NGOs working on legal issues in the region, as well as local community conflict resolution systems. It seems that there is a traditional justice system among the indigenous ethnic minority in Cambodia. These communities prefer using the system they have in place because they are not familiar with the local courts. Not being literate, they are also vulnerable to what the court dictates without being aware of the proper procedures. Moreover, with the courts being so corrupt, they cannot meet the costs of winning a case. The translator describes the courts as not belonging to the people, but rather solely to the rich, i.e. those able to pay off the judges. He does not consider the 2010 Anti Corruption Law to have improved the situation.

With that said, it looks like one organization is starting a mediation program for small-scale, local conflicts in Cambodia. It looks like this will probably circulate around family issues and gender-based violence. I have not yet had a chance to follow-up this source, but I will start looking into this angle in the coming weeks. You can also check out this report from the UNDP “A case study of indigenous traditional legal systems and conflict resolution in Cambodia.”

Also, coming back to corruption in Cambodia: from what the translator discussed, it is clear the issue is similar in its core to corruption in Kenya. Police and civil servants are paid a pittance and being paid-off becomes a necessary bonus on their salary if they are to survive. In his community, the translator said he did occasionally offer what he called donations to the police. These donations were announced publicly in front of several policemen to ensure the resources were split between several members. This contribution, he said, is meant to ensure that they can get fuel in their cars and actually patrol the neighbourhoods and respond to calls. From this angle, corruption morphs more into something like a ‘tax,’ without the government being directly involved. I remember a similar narrative in Nairobi: a taxi driver telling me that “chai” or a small pay-off was literally for the policewoman’s cup of evening tea as she sat in a miserable lean-to next to the highway leading to the airport.

If you have any suggestions on where to find more information on traditional justice systems in Cambodia, please contact me at siena.anstis(@)

(Cross posted from here).

From Phnom Penh.

I have started blogging from Cambodia on my personal website, but will also be cross-posting many of these thoughts here. There will be a mix of travel writing and more substantial reporting once work starts at LICADHO next week. For now, I’ll kick it off with the following, which is also posted here:

This space is likely going to turn into a bit of a travelog over the next few weeks as I get settled in Phnom Penh. I will likely also make many comparisons between here and situations I have come across in my work in East Africa. While some of these comparisons might seem out of place, they are lending towards a richer experience and one which will likely allow me to develop a more substantial understanding of important similarities in developing economies, despite different cultural histories.

The first few days in Phnom Penh have been a whirlwind. I landed in the city Tuesday night; welcomed by the familiar wall of heavy heat and humidity. The din of the city was not masked by the darkness. Corners filled by moto drivers, tiny food stalls lit and busy, garbage on the streets – all much like Uganda. The area I will be living in is near the Independence Monument and basically in the city centre. There’s an open park nearby – something you would not see often in Kampala, but is common in Phnom Penh – which hosts an oval of joggers (whom I will join this evening) and, at its centre, open air aerobic and dance classes.


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