A Nation in Mourning

By André Capretti

On Sunday morning, Cambodia lost one of its most beloved sons. Kem Ley was a prominent independent political analyst, a renowned intellectual, an advocate for democratic reform, and an ardent critic of the government. Most importantly, he was a husband, a brother, a son, and a father to four boys, with a fifth child on the way.

The news of his death was made more painful by its senselessness and the callous manner in which it occurred. Ley was just about to have his morning coffee at a gas station café, when he was executed by a gunman at point blank range.

The reaction of the Cambodian public illustrates how respected and revered Kim Ley was by his countrymen and countrywomen. Thousands of Cambodians gathered in a procession, marching to a pagoda on the other side of town, to lay his body to rest. Since then, his funeral was attended by thousands of people wishing to pay their last respects. While a somber moment for all, the event seemed to bring many Cambodians closer together, unified in their mourning and sorrow.

Kem Ley's Funeral

Kem Ley’s Funeral

Today was the tenth edition of the Black Monday campaign. After more than 20 arrests in the past 9 weeks, no protesters were detained today, and yet the day stood out for being much darker than any other Black Monday.

In the days, weeks and months to come, much will be made about the assassin: his identity, his connection to Ley, his motives, etc. Luckily, the suspect was apprehended as he fled the scene. And yet, in the messy aftermath there appears to be little reason to believe that justice will truly be served in this case. Ley’s body had barely turned cold before supporters of both major political parties began blaming the other for his death.

Many people pointed the finger at the ruling party, whose track record of political assassinations and use of scapegoats makes it a prime suspect. While few will question that the man captured by police was the one who pulled the trigger, it remains to be seen whether he was truly the mastermind behind this heinous crime.

One important piece of the puzzle would appear to be an interview that Ley gave to Radio Free Asia just a few days ago, about a groundbreaking report released by London-based international organization Global Witness. The report caused shockwaves across Cambodia, as it detailed the extraordinary levels of wealth held by Prime Minister Hun Sen, his children and his extended family. In a country where nearly 40% of Cambodians still live below or close to the poverty line, the report revealed that the ruling family had substantial control over 114 local companies in 20 different economic sectors, and an estimated net worth of at least 200 million dollars. The report helped to highlight the extreme levels of corruption, nepotism and income inequality that plague the oligarchical Cambodian economy. It also served as a warning for Cambodians about the very real possibility of a dynastic dictatorship holding on to the reins of power for decades to come.

The reaction from Hun Sen and his family was swift and dismissive, as many of his children took to social media to deny claims of wrongdoing and accuse Global Witness of trying to ruin their reputation. Sen’s own response was nauseating, as he posted photos to his Facebook page of him toasting a drink with his children in celebration, seemingly mocking the report. Sen’s poor taste was somehow trumped by a pro-government media outlet, which posted an anonymous reader’s letter titled “Behavior Plunging Cambodians Into a Bonfire of War Because of Foreigners”, which used a doctored piece of Nazi propaganda to attack the English-language Cambodian newspapers which initially published news of the report.

In the aftermath of Kem Ley’s slaying, many of my colleagues spoke in admiration of a man who was fearless, unafraid to die if it meant standing up for what he believed in. Others remembered a man who was outspoken, even in the face of increasing persecution against government critics. It remains to be seen what kind of impact Ley’s death will have on the state of freedom of speech in Cambodia. Many expect it to serve as a chilling reminder of the lengths that the ruling party is willing to take to consolidate its power and eliminate all voices of dissent.

I wish I could end this blog post on a happy note, but there’s really no point sugar coating it. The prognosis appears grim for Cambodia, a country in a deep state of crisis, where the space for civil society keeps shrinking, and human rights are at the bottom of the government’s list of priorities.

Looking ahead at my last few weeks in the country I have four dates highlighted on my agenda. Two are trial dates, one marks a court summons and the fourth the announcement of a verdict. All four cases are political. At this point it’s hard to be optimistic that justice will prevail, when all four outcomes seem clearly pre-determined.

For now, I’m just hoping for a miracle.

Just Keep Swimming

By André Capretti

In the past few months, Cambodian civil society has made concerted efforts to lobby foreign governments who are among Cambodia’s biggest aid donors, in the hopes of pressuring the government to cease violating human rights and making a mockery of the justice system. By using aid money as leverage, foreign governments can advocate for improvements in the State’s treatment of its citizens and for the respect of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties.

However, for a long time embassies in Phnom Penh were disturbingly quiet about the politically motivated repression of the State’s most ardent critics and high-profile opponents. While activists, opposition politicians and human rights defenders were being thrown into prison one after the other, far too many foreign delegations limited their statements to “expressions of deep concern”. “Concern”, no matter how deep or heartfelt it may be, is not an effective tool for bringing about serious change in the ruthless Cambodian political landscape. It is even less appropriate from actors like the United States EmbassyUN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon, or the European Union delegation, who have the gravitas and influence necessary to make a difference through their words and actions.

So when the European Parliament voted for a resolution on June 9, which called for the body’s 410 million€ of aid to be made conditional on improvements in Cambodia’s human rights situation, there seemed to be signs for potential rejoicing. And yet the Cambodian government’s response to the EU’s diplomatic move was harsh and dismissive. Prime Minister Hun Sen made a speech in which he stated, “China has never made a threat to Cambodia and has never ordered Cambodia to do something…You threaten to cut off aid; please cut it and the first person who will suffer will be the people who work with NGOs.”

These comments present two worrisome issues. Firstly, what to do when countries like China, who have no qualms about less than stellar human rights records, present themselves as aid partners for developing countries, making withholding aid no longer a viable means of affecting change? Secondly, what to do when a government calls your bluff and appears to relish the possibility of cutting off money from NGOs?

The government of Cambodia has long prioritized economic development and security at the expense of democracy and human rights, without acknowledging that those do not have to be mutually exclusive goals. Cambodia’s recent response to the threats made by the EU is alarming, as it demonstrates that they are not afraid to expand the chasm between development and human rights even further.

Here’s an interesting Op-Ed from the New York Times on the role of human rights in the World Bank’s development policies.

 **********

            Lorsque je lis les nouvelles cambodgiennes sur les réseaux sociaux, il m’arrive parfois de me demander si l’article que je lis est une parodie ou un article sérieux. L’absurdité des propos des membres du gouvernement dans leurs entrevues et dans leurs déclarations aux médias rend la tâche particulièrement difficile.

Prenons par exemple le vidéo intitulé « Using Rights in Anarchic Way », produit récemment par le gouvernement. Dans ce vidéo, le gouvernement avertit les cambodgiens que si ils utilisent leurs droits « de la mauvaise façon », ils risquent de reproduire les mêmes sortes de guerres civiles qu’ont vécues la Libye et la Syrie, après que le peuple s’est opposé au gouvernement. Sans aucun signe d’ironie, le narrateur raconte que l’usage excessif des droits amènera la destruction, des familles éclatées, la perte d’une centaine de milliers de vies et d’habitats, et le carnage. Le narrateur conclut qu’après toutes ces horreurs, il ne restera que des souvenirs douloureux.

Le message transmis au public par le gouvernement dans ce vidéo est clair. Arrêtez donc de manifester, de vous exprimer, de vous plaindre contre la corruption, la répression de l’État, l’abus du système judiciaire et l’harcèlement de la société civile. Si vous ne restez pas en silence, on n’hésitera pas à utiliser la violence et la brutalité pour vous écraser, comme ils ont fait en Syrie et en Libye. Il est encore plus difficile de croire que l’organe du gouvernement qui a publié la vidéo est le Cambodian Human Rights Committee, un organe qui est censé promouvoir les droits humains !

En bref c’est ça la situation des droits humains au Cambodge : la ligne entre la réalité et l’absurde est floue. C’est un pays où le ministre de la défense menace d’emprisonner les gens s’ils manifestent pacifiquement sans demander de permission. Un pays où le passetemps préféré du premier ministre semble être de faire taire ses adversaires et ses critiques avec des poursuites en diffamation. Un pays où le gouvernement déclare que les manifestants doivent demander la permission du gouvernement pour s’exprimer sur les réseaux sociaux. Un pays où le double standard entre les partis critiques du gouvernement et les amis proches du régime est flagrant et injuste. Pendant que le chef député de l’opposition fait face à des chefs d’accusions banals motivés par des intérêts politiques, des haut placés dans le gouvernement sont protégés des regards du tribunal chargé de réprimer les crimes de l’ère des Khmers rouges. Ce type d’impunité est tout simplement inacceptable pour un pays qui prétend respecter les droits humains et la justice.

            Ce qui est le plus absurde dans tout ça c’est de voir comment le droit, le système de justice et le discours des droits humains peuvent être maniés d’une façon aussi grotesque, par un gouvernement qui a si peu de respect pour son peuple.

 **********

            Last summer I followed with great interest Brodie Noga’s blogs, where he recounted his experiences as an intern with LICADHO. In particular, one of his blogs caught my attention, and left a lasting impression in my mind: Monitoring a Trial for Insurrection.  

Recently, I had the chance to witness the second act of this case, as three members of the youth wing of the opposition political party were being put on trial for the same events as their predecessors, accused of leading and participating in an insurrection, for their actions in a 2014 peaceful protest turned violent.

What I witnessed during the two hearings I attended was a shocking display of political theatre. The judge made no effort to conceal that the defendants’ presumption of innocence had been replaced with a presumption of guilt. One of the defendants, Yea Thong, provided compelling testimony which indicated that he had very likely been at the wrong place at the wrong time, and possibly the victim of a case of mistaken identity. Yet the judge made absolutely no effort to probe his claims further, making it clear that the defendants’ guilt had been predetermined.

What was most appalling was the ridiculous case presented by the prosecutor, who brought forth no evidence to corroborate the allegations and barred the defence from calling on key witnesses for additional questioning. The prosecutor made the absurd argument that although the defendants’ actions did not involve the constituting acts of the offence of insurrection, their arrests and prosecutions were justified on the grounds that this offence had to be dealt with pre-emptively.

I felt confident that there was no way a reasonable judge would convict the three men of any crime, much less a crime like insurrection which carries a sentence ranging from seven to 15 years of imprisonment. I soon learned that was naïve of me.

On the day the verdict was handed down, I observed a similar scene to that which Brodie had witnessed a year prior. While waiting for the judges to show up, the three defendants smiled and laughed with their family members in the audience. My eyes lingered on Yea Thong, the defendant whose testimony I had heard and who I was convinced was completely innocent. He seemed relaxed and unworried, laughing along with his fellow defendants. He even gave a reassuring wink to his wife, sitting two rows behind him, as if to say, “Don’t worry honey, this will all be over soon enough”.

And then the judge entered the chambers. Immediately the mood in the room changed. The tension was palpable as the judge began to rattle off the charges and read out the verdicts. My Khmer colleague whispered in my ear, “7 years. All three of them”. My heart sank. I looked over to the defendants, to Yea Thong in particular. From behind I could see that his hands had begun to shake. And then his arms began to tremble as well. As the prison guards took away the three –now convicted – men, their families started to shout and scream, many of them in tears.

In that moment, I was dumbfounded by the verdict. That feeling would slowly be replaced in equal parts by feelings of fury and sorrow. Yea Thong later denounced his verdict, noting that “[n]othing about this is remarkable because the courts in Cambodia are not fair to people.” His wife would go on to add that “[t]here is no justice, brother, because my husband did not do anything wrong. Courts in Cambodia are not fair for the powerless people.”

I didn’t have much time to recover from that disturbing scene before we zoomed off on a tuk-tuk to the Appeals Court. Once there, we waited to hear whether the five human rights defenders who had been in pre-trial detention since May 2 would have their requests for bail allowed. Once again, being a young, naïve and idealistic law student, I thought they might actually be granted bail. Under the law, they certainly qualified for it. Yet as I had just seen in the insurrection case, and as my colleagues had repeatedly reminded me, the law was not a prime consideration in cases like these. Inexplicably, the five were denied bail by the court, which tried providing some semblance of a justification for its decision to mask the clear political motivations behind the case. With a heavy heart, I headed home. In one day I had had a front row seat to two major injustices perpetrated by Cambodia’s justice system. I am beginning to realize that the struggles of human rights work can erode even the most hardened layers of optimism and idealism.

Advocacy material for the Black Monday campaign
Advocacy material for the Black Monday campaign
The beach on Rabbit Island near Kep
The beach on Rabbit Island near Kep

 

Luckily, the LICADHO team held its annual staff retreat soon after in the seaside town of Kep. The idyllic locale, with the calming smell and sound of the ocean, did wonders for my morale. The time spent together, laughing, sharing meals, playing games, lifted everyone’s spirits. It was much needed. No matter how demoralizing, disheartening or depressing human rights work can be, it is far too valuable to ever give up. While we may sometimes lose hope, I was reminded of an important lesson when I recently went to the movie theatres to see Finding Dory.

When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do?

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.  

Stifling Heat & A Government That Stifles Dissent

Par André Capretti

Je trouve ça difficile à croire que ça fait juste deux semaines que je suis au Cambodge. Avec toute l’action qu’il y a en ce moment au pays j’ai l’impression d’avoir passé des mois ici !

Depuis que je suis ici je n’ai pas besoin de mettre de réveil les matins. La chaleur est tellement intense que je me réveille tout seul peu après que le soleil se soit levé. À Montréal je ne suis pas matinal du tout, mais ici à Phnom Penh j’ai dû développer une nouvelle routine pour m’habituer au climat. On me dit que la période sèche vient de se terminer, et que maintenant c’est la saison de pluie qui commence. Je ne peux pas imaginer comment il pourrait faire plus chaud qu’il fait ces jours-ci. Déjà le mercure a frôlé le 50 degrés Celsius à plusieurs reprises, et la température moyenne varie de 35 à 40 degrés, 45 avec l’humidité. C’est une chaleur que je qualifierais de suffocante ou d’étouffante. En conséquence je dois ralentir mon rythme de vie, boire autant d’eau que possible pour étancher ma soif, et m’enduire de crème solaire (SPF 80!) à chaque sortie.

Pendant que moi j’ai du mal à endurer cette canicule constante, je constate que les gens du Cambodge, qu’on appelle aussi les Khmers, ne semblent pas autant perturbés par la chaleur. J’ai du mal à m’imaginer comment ils peuvent supporter cette température lorsque la grande majorité d’entre eux portent seulement des pantalons et des chandails à manches longues. Un collègue cambodgien me dit que pour lui, ce qui est plus impressionnant c’est le fait qu’au Canada on puisse supporter des hivers glaciaux ! La comparaison est apte. Dans les deux cas on n’a qu’à changer notre mode de vie un peu pour s’adapter. On sort moins, on réduit nos activités et lorsqu’on sort on a hâte de retourner à un abri intérieur, soit pour l’air climatisé, soit pour le chauffage. Et donc finalement nos luttes quotidiennes contre le climat ne sont pas si différentes que ça !

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Le palais royal de Phnom Penh.

Le palais royal de Phnom Penh.

*****************

While I may be able to relate with the weather-related struggles faced by Cambodians, there is a different, far more important source of oppression that Cambodians face on a daily basis which is harder to relate with. It’s the reason why I’m here.

Every morning I hop on the back of a motodop (basically a motorcycle-taxi) and make my way to work. While my motorcycle driver darts and weaves through the crazy traffic-filled streets of Phnom Penh, I always try and take in the surrounding sights: merchants selling their wares, families of 3, 4 (or even 5!) on the back of a single motorbike, food stalls with vendors selling coffee, spring rolls, or a variety of hearty meat dishes, smiling kids making their way to school, street dogs ambling about, tuk-tuks full of foreigners (tourists or “ex-pats”). The list goes on. Once I arrive at LICADHO, I’m greeted by calls of suesdai (“hello” in Khmer) from the local staffers, and a refreshing blast of cool air from the air-conditioning, which provides a welcome respite from the extreme heat outdoors.

While the “oppressive” Cambodian heat may cause me some temporary discomfort, it is nothing compared to the real problems and human rights abuses faced by so many Cambodians. The stifling temperatures here go hand in hand with a political climate in which dissent is stifled at every turn.

My first few work assignments at LICADHO have been related to a recent political scandal involving Kem Sokha, the acting leader of the opposition party, the CNRP. At first glance the case appears to be a run-of-the-mill sex scandal involving a respected politician. However, on further inspection the case is far from ordinary. The case has snowballed and taken on many tangents, entangling other opposition party politicians, respected human rights advocates and NGO officials, prominent elections officials, a political analyst, a social media celebrity, and even a UN employee.

LICADHO itself has been caught in the fray on two occasions. Once on May 9th, when three of its staffers were arrested (later released) while trying to protest the unjustified detention of five human rights defenders, who were arrested on highly questionable charges. The demonstration was part of a campaign that has been coined #BlackMonday, in which the public is called on to wear black every Monday, and protest against the group’s detention. This popular movement has triggered paranoia in the government, as they have labeled these peaceful protests an “act of rebellion” and an attempt to start a “colour revolution” (a term that refers to non-violent protest movements which led to regime change in many Eastern European countries in the early 2000s).

The second incident occurred after the Ministry of Justice threatened LICADHO for having published a list on its website of 29 political prisoners currently being detained or jailed in Cambodia on politically motivated charges.

It is widely alleged and believed that the ruling party, the CPP, has manufactured the whole legal conundrum enveloping the Kem Sokha affair in order to undermine the opposition party in anticipation of regional elections in 2017 and national elections in 2018. The current government has a track record of using the judicial system to crack down on political opposition, civil society and human rights groups. As noted by UN Envoy Rhona Smith, the Cambodian government appears far too comfortable abusing the rule of law to accomplish their political goals: “There is certainly concern of the use of law as a political tool rather than a legal tool for securing justice”.

There is so much going on here at the moment related to human rights abuses, that I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of issues. That being said, I am reassured by the amazing work being done by organizations like LICADHO, and by the indomitable spirit of the Cambodian people, who are fighting for a long list of causes, including among others, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, labour rights, and land rights. My time here has only added to the admiration that I have for the sacrifices that LICADHO and other Cambodian rights groups and grassroots activists are willing to make in the name of civil resistance and human rights advocacy.

For more information about LICADHO, check out their website – http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/ – & Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/licadho/?fref=ts

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.