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Meeting Tep Vanny

By Emilie Duchesne

One of my most interesting assignments was to research Tep Vanny, Cambodia’s most famous land activist. Just a few days ago, she was finally released from prison after two years. As part of the push to get her out, LICADHO was planning to create a website celebrating her activism. Along with another intern (who luckily knew more than I do about website design, which is nothing), I got to visit CC2 women’s prison to interview Tep Vanny for our research.

While we were waiting for her, I listened and took notes while the prison team interviewed two prisoners who broke my heart. The first was a 16-year-old mother who had given birth after being incarcerated for selling drugs. Another of my projects was a legal analysis of the criminal provisions in Cambodia’s law, and so I knew she had likely been sentenced to a disproportionately long prison term for next to nothing. The prison team made sure that her baby was healthy and arranged to provide supplies for her, since they are not provided in prison. She seemed to be doing a remarkably good job with her baby despite the situation.

After speaking with her, the team asked a guard about a tip they had received that a ten-year-old boy was being illegally held in the prison. There is a law on juvenile delinquency in Cambodia which sets the minimum age for detention at 14 and also commits Cambodia to various international standards on the treatment of children in detention. When he came out, I saw how little he was and knew there was no way he had been mistaken for a fourteen-year-old.

I later did research on the juvenile delinquency act and learned that there are no enforcement provisions, and that there is also no independent monitoring. The judges who are charged with monitoring are the same people who put Tep Vanny and other activists in prison whenever instructed by the government to do so. LICADHO was only able to learn about the incarcerated boy because another prisoner had tipped them off during an interview. He was not being kept separately from adult prisoners, and his parents had not been contacted. Thankfully, the women prisoners had been taking care of him, comforting him, and giving him extra food, and the prison team was able to advocate to get him released and back to his family.

When Tep Vanny came out, all the nerves I had been feeling on the way to the prison were instantly alleviated. She is a hero here in Cambodia, and her activism has been centrally featured in at least two documentaries that I know of. Despite this, she is completely warm and unpretentious; she laughed with us, put us at ease, and thanked us for taking the time to talk to her, saying she rarely gets opportunities to speak about her activism with other prisoners.

It all started in 2010, when Vanny’s home and those of her neighbours were razed to make way for a Cambodian People’s Party senator and his powerful Chinese backers to build a commercial development.[1] There was no consultation process; the community learned about the development when the company showed up and began destroying homes and filling the lake with sand. Vanny’s mother had been evicted in a different land grab, and so she had already seen first-hand that the government does not normally pay fair compensation to evicted people. Her activism began with going door-to-door in her community telling people about their rights and urging them to stand together. She spent the next ten years organizing, protesting, and petitioning alongside her all-women activist group, the Boeung Kak 13, until almost all the families in her community had negotiated title agreements with the government.

At this point she extended the fight to other people disenfranchised by economic land concessions and to activists who have been wrongfully jailed by the Cambodian government.[2] She even picked up English, which she had been too poor to learn in school, so she could raise awareness internationally. Now her English is excellent, and she has spoken in front of the UN on behalf of Cambodian land grabbing victims. Her activism has been hugely successful in raising awareness about land grabbing, but at great personal cost: she has been threatened, beaten, and arrested on many occasions. On August 15th, 2016, she was arrested alone for the first time. The government had always previously arrested her alongside other activists from her community, and so many people believe she was arrested alone this time in an attempt to break her spirit.

On the night of her arrest, Tep Vanny was leading the Boeung Kak lake community in a cursing ceremony to protest the arbitrary detention of five NGO officers and an election official. It was a terrifying time for human rights defenders: following a close and highly contested election in 2013 marred by allegations of fraud, the government’s uneasy truce with civil society had collapsed into a violet crackdown with various legislative restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, consistent state violence against protesters and strikers, and the forced closure of major independent newspapers and radio stations.

In response to this crackdown, Tep and other activists launched the Black Monday campaign of May 2016, in which various groups protested peacefully while wearing the color black as a sign of united resistance. Prime Minister Hun Sen immediately responded with a ban on “any protests in which participants are dressed in the same colour”. Hun Sen frequently alleges that foreign governments are conspiring to incite a Cambodian uprising– a “colour revolution” based on the revolutions in Yugoslavia and Serbia- when justifying violations of political rights.[3] In the weeks that followed the ban, authorities enforced it by violently dispersing protests, threatening protesters, and banning people from posting their views online without government permission. Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson described the situation as “a witch-hunt against any NGO or activist who ever demanded the government respect human rights, called out corrupt officials, or organized joint actions”.[4]

Despite the ban, Tep’s group continued protesting and even expanded their campaign in July to demand an independent investigation after a popular political analyst was murdered. Kem Ley was shot in a gas station days after publicly commenting on a Global Witness report titled “Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family”. Kem Ley’s death must have been a reminder to Tep Vanny of the risk she was running as the face of land activism in her community. According to Global Witness, at least thirteen environmental and land activists were killed in Cambodia between 2002 and 2014.[5] But, if she felt afraid, it was still not enough to convince her to stop. Only three fabricated charges and a politically motivated arrest could finally put an end to her work.

When I met Vanny, I was struck by her kindness and intelligence. Compared to pictures I had seen she looked pale and tired, but when she spoke about her activism I recognized the Vanny I had seen in documentaries, passionately leading protests and confronting government officials. She lit up when talking about her children, who are both top of their classes in school. She told funny anecdotes of when she first started approaching members of her community about activism and was met with skepticism because she was relatively new in the community and not well-known. We asked her about fear, and she said: “we all have fear in the body, but we continue anyway.” She told us that when she is released, she will continue her activism by providing newer activists with guidance. She believes solidarity is the key: “the government wants to silence us one-by-one. But we are bigger than the government together. We have to use our power.” When we asked if there were any parts of the interview that she would like for us to omit, she smiled wryly and said: “Write what you want. I’ve said too many things already.”

 

[1] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-post-depth-politics/boeung-kak-disastrous-decade

[2] https://www.amnesty.org.uk/tep-vanny-jailed-defending-her-home

[3] https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/prime-minister-bans-color-coordinated-demonstrations-112434/

[4] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/government-ups-plot-accusations-new-video-linking-cnrp-and-us-groups-colour-revolutions

[5] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/land-activists-%E2%80%98under-threat%E2%80%99

Cast of a Show Election: Villains, enablers, and heroes

By Emilie Duchesne

It took me maybe five minutes to fall in love with Phnom Penh. I stepped out of the airport after my day-and-a-half redeye, thinking I was too exhausted to feel anything, and it woke me right up. At first it was the lack of traffic control. When you aren’t used to it, it’s hard to overstate how exhilarating it is to ride in a tuk-tuk at rush hour, with motos weaving in between cars and around street vendors. Being Canadian, and used to all the action being indoors, the next thing that struck me was how little is enclosed. Most restaurants and shops are open to the street, many ground-floor houses double as shops, and big groups of people eat street-food at tables a few feet from traffic. There is so much people-watching to be had that you couldn’t possibly catch it all.

I remember finding it jarring to see propagandistic Cambodian People’s Party signs on every street, but they quickly become invisible. Campaigning started today for the sham election, and I had my way blocked by a parade of twenty or so cars, trucks, and floats with CPP supporters yelling and waving banners. While I watched with interest, the people around me continued their conversations or took out their phones. Anything can seem normal after thirty-three years.

Some people had hoped this would be the last year of Hun Sen. The last national election nearly went to the opposition, and they made even more gains in local elections last year. But winning the popular vote in a military dictatorship can turn out to be a tactical mistake. Six months before I arrived, the CPP stopped tolerating dissent in any form. First, in November, they had the opposition party dissolved by the Supreme Court. Over 100 party members were banned from politics for five years and many others, including leader Kem Sokha, were jailed on spurious charges. In the months that followed, the CPP has systematically destroyed the independent media with forced closures and targeted arrests, and self-censorship is now pervasive among the independent journalists who remain in the country. The CPP has also recently passed a series of legislative amendments criminalizing free speech and authorizing intensive government surveillance of NGOs and the social media accounts of the general public. People have been targeted seemingly at random, creating a climate of paranoia. In one case that I researched, two former Radio Free Asia journalists, Oun Chhin and Yeang Sotherain, were charged with espionage and producing pornography after Oun, who was out of a job after the forced closure of Radio Free Asia’s Cambodian branch, set up a karaoke production studio in a guesthouse. When he called his friend and former colleague, Yeang, to testify that he had not been “spying”- which the CPP have re-defined to mean “telling the international community about the crackdown”- they arrested Yeang, too.

I arrived in the middle of a strange lull; on the one hand, everything is falling apart, and on the other, there is very little for anyone to do. NGOs and activist groups have observed the plight of people such as Chhin and Sotherarin who have been persecuted for nothing, and now have a well-grounded fear of being shut down, deported, or jailed. The threat of jail means something more in Cambodia- it’s not just loss of freedom, it’s confinement to filthy and severely over-crowded conditions, especially in Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar men’s prison. While the wealthy can bribe their way to relatively luxurious conditions, in the average cell there are a hundred people to one toilet and the men sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground. The overcrowding problem has in large part been brought on by the war on drugs, a hugely ineffective and ill-executed strategy inspired by the American war on drugs.[1] LICADHO’s prison team monitors 18 of the 28 prisons, interviewing the prisoners to ensure their rights are not being violated and providing them with medical care, but there is simply not enough money or doctors to provide what should be a social service, if the government had any interest in that sort of thing.

And then there are the quieter but equally horrible everyday effects of a dysfunctional government: corrupt pay-to-care police, corrupt pay-to-win judiciary, no public healthcare, no social security, substandard public schools, and the list goes on. The NGOs function as a sort of decentralized bureaucracy, attempting to fill in the gaps, but the uneven quality of NGOs and lack of a coordinating mechanism makes this impossible. The government has no incentive to improve the state of things because Chinese investment will keep pouring in either way. The country keeps getting richer on paper, but it isn’t trickling down. The basic agreement between Cambodia and China is that China provides lots of no-strings-attached aid, by contrast with international aid, which is contingent on respecting human rights standards. In exchange, Chinese businesses get to build developments wherever they want, leaving evicted Cambodians and environmental destruction in their wake. In the words of my tour guide at Angkor Wat, who turned out to be a fascinating person: “why does China only give money to bad guys? Because the bad guys are easy to control.” Most recently, Hun Sen granted a cheap 99-year lease to China to develop a massive resort on Cambodia’s valuable and ecologically sensitive coastline. It will cover a full 20% of the coast, and will include its own airport, leading some to question whether China has effectively been granted sovereignty over a huge parcel of Cambodia.[2] This is only one of many land concessions that have been granted to foreign interests, mostly China and Vietnam.[3]

Before I showed up here, I was preoccupied by the question of how to get rid of Hun Sen. Practically speaking, what would the international community need to do- sanction the textile industry, cut off aid? Would the human costs be too high, and would these methods even work? It seemed like a logical question to me. If you’re faced with a hydra, everyone knows you don’t cut off one of the heads- you have to stab the heart.

Now that I am here, it seems obvious that I was asking the wrong question. Of course the international community could do something. I don’t know the best method of intervention, but I am not a political strategist. What I do know is that when the World Bank cut funding to Cambodia in 2011, largely in response to protests by Phnom Penh’s evicted Boeung Kak lake community, the government finally gave the community the compensation they had demanded. However, the World Bank went back on its promise not to end the funding freeze until the government had addressed the land grabbing problem.[4] They reinstated funding even though land grabbing remains the single most prominent political issue in Cambodia. One of my tasks at LICADHO is to keep a record of the land protesters who come to the capital to protest, and I quickly found myself getting confused between all the different but often related conflicts. In total, 23 communities representing more than 2,400 families across 11 provinces came to Phnom Penh in June alone; this does not include various communities that chose to take their complaints to provincial authorities instead.[5]

Engagements like this on the part of the international community are par for the course in Cambodia- a short burst of interest, and then nothing. Despite various condemnations of the opposition party’s dissolution and much discussion, so far aid has not been cut and trade agreements remain intact.[6]

This international disinterest is especially depressing considering that Cambodia’s problems have been created to a large extent by other countries’ foreign policies since at least French colonial times, and arguably far longer. Today, the biggest player is China, but historically Cambodia has been caught between the “tiger and the crocodile” of Vietnam and Thailand, and during the Vietnam war Cambodian civilians were heavily bombed by the United States.[7] The rise of the Khmer Rouge- like so many other human rights atrocities- has been persuasively linked to American interventionism in the region.[8] The concept of sovereignty seems entirely empty in a context such as this, where the self-interested meddling of foreign elites carries so much more influence than the democratic will of the people. The rest of the world is by far more responsible for Hun Sen than Cambodians, who have never elected him in a fair election, but they don’t see it that way. The United States has not paid any reparations, and instead is still asking Cambodia to repay loans used to feed refugees whose homes were destroyed by the bombing.[9] China is still happily munching away like Cambodia is a snack to tide it over between Africa and the Middle East. And the EU has bigger fish to fry- in the words of my colleague, “there is always something even worse happening somewhere, and they aren’t doing anything there, either.”

Human rights work in an autocracy is draining, frustrating, and tragic, and yet meaningful work does get done. It is really something to watch the people who do this work and to speak them about why they do it.

What do you do when you can’t kill a hydra? It turns out that you do whatever can be done, including slicing the same heads over and over to momentarily stop them from eating people. The progress is slow, and there is personal sacrifice almost universally.

I met one woman, a lawyer at another NGO, who was threatened by the government and forced to quit her job. She quit working for a year and then returned and continued representing the people the government wants to shut up- land activists, human rights defenders, and people who have had their land illegally grabbed. She loses almost every single case because judicial independence is non-existent in Cambodia. It’s a testament to her ingenuity that she still manages to win occasionally. But as any lawyer knows, winning and losing trials isn’t the biggest part of the job; it’s supporting clients through difficult decisions in through a careful, researched appraisal of the options. She can’t always, even often, get people a win when they deserve it, but she can make sure they understand their procedural rights and their options. And there are little wins, mostly cases that are dropped for lack of evidence when she pushes for this at the pre-trial stage.

This lawyer and her assistant, who has been failed at the Cambodian equivalent of the bar twice now because of corruption, are two of the people I admire most in this world. They both knew that they were signing up to be discriminated against when they decided to do human rights work, and they have been. They decided to do it anyway. Lawyers everywhere face the choice between selling out and doing good work, but in Cambodia that choice is starker and more lasting.

I also want to tell you about a colleague of mine. His family fell into poverty when he was young, and he put himself through university by working as a nighttime security guard and then by working fulltime. He chose to work in human rights, knowing the salary would be modest, and he regularly works 50+ hour weeks, which is a lot even for LICADHO staff, who are in general the hardest-working people I have ever met. Most of his salary goes toward his little brother’s university fees. He told me some friends who graduated with him work in government, which entails very little work and making a comfortable living off bribes. He would never judge them, and said he see it as people doing what they need to do to get by. Thinking of myself, and the temptation I’ve felt at times to sell out, I asked if he had ever considered it. He hadn’t. He told me he loves his job and considers himself lucky to love what he does. He also told me he would continue even if he didn’t- the work is too important to stop.

[1] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/drug-law-passed-critics-cry-foul

[2] http://www.atimes.com/article/a-chinese-colony-takes-shape-in-cambodia/

[3] http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/land_concessions/

[4] https://www.reuters.com/article/cambodia-worldbank/world-bank-stops-funds-for-cambodia-over-evictions-idUSL3E7J920D20110809 ; https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/world-bank-loan-of-100-million-angers-boeng-kak-activists-128160/

[5] https://twitter.com/licadho/status/1014802083201970176

[6] https://euobserver.com/opinion/142321

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Menu

[8] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/khmer-rouge-cambodian-genocide-united-states/ ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegations_of_United_States_support_for_the_Khmer_Rouge

[9] https://www.npr.org/2017/05/30/530683478/u-s-demands-cambodia-repay-loan-from-vietnam-war-era

Criminal Justice in Cambodia: A Corridor of Illusions

Rintoul AndrewBy: Andrew Rintoul

Time and again, the Cambodian criminal justice system has proven to be an arbitrary construct built and operated at the expense of the many. Against this illusory backdrop of legitimacy resides human beings, individuals with loved ones and lives awaiting them outside prison walls. This notion thundered loudly as Tep Vanny, a mother and a daughter, was asked by the defence lawyer about the status of her family at the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh today. The ensuing display of emotion was difficult to behold without feeling a tremendous sense of remorse and anger at the system responsible.

Tep Vanny has been detained for nearly a year, since her arrest on 15 August 2016. In February 2017, she was convicted of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” at the Phnom Penh Court of First Instance. The charges were based on allegations of violence against para-police during a 2013 protest near the home of the Prime Minister. During that protest, both she and numerous other protestors suffered serious injuries at the hands of the authorities. Her sentence of two-and-a-half-years’ imprisonment and US$3500 compensation to the plaintiffs remains, with the verdict from today’s appeal to be announced on 8 August 2017.

Court of Appeal, Phnom Penh

Tep Vanny is not alone. There are many who share similar experiences within the prevailing criminal justice system in Cambodia. In today’s appeal, as was the case in her first instance trial earlier this year, the burden of proof bar was non-existent. With plaintiffs and prosecution witnesses absent, there was no room for cross-examination. The submitted statements of these individuals, read aloud by the court clerk, were eerily similar and corroborated seamlessly one another. However, none presented any shred of credible evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. And yet, in coming to his verdict, the presiding judge will undoubtedly consider such proceedings to have been sufficiently legitimate. In the trials I have witnessed over the past months and in the numerous cases I have examined, painfully few have demonstrated any semblance of due process or a presumption of innocence. Her case is not rare; experiences with violations to enshrined fair trial rights are shared across the board.

There are also many who share Tep Vanny’s story, those who have had their land violently removed from under their feet and those who have joined in the struggle for justice. In 2014, more than half a million people in Cambodia had been affected by land grabs since 2000, with numbers continuing to grow since then. Tep Vanny was once a resident of Boeung Kak Lake, Phnom Penh’s largest lake at the time. In 2007, the municipality of Phnom Penh announced a 99-year lease agreement with Shukaku Inc., a private development firm. The agreement, which appeared to violate multiple Cambodian laws and international obligations, gave the firm jurisdiction to fill in the lake and to develop it as a tourist destination, in exchange for US$79 million. The ensuing increase in flooding and the destruction of homes led to thousands of evictions, with only a small minority of people willingly accepting meagre compensation and many being forcibly removed and given nothing.

This struggle led to the emergence of an incredibly brave group of Boeung Kak Lake land activists who have been taking action against the authorities since. Tep Vanny has become one of the most prominent and outspoken of these activists, along with a number of other women, including 78-year old Nget Khun. I have had the privilege of speaking with Nget Khun on multiple occasions and visited her at Boeung Kak Lake last month to discuss development in the country. Speaking in Khmer, she said, “We do not reject development, but development should provide appropriate compensation and homes and family happiness.” As she was a witness for the defence in today’s appeal, her sentiment rang clearly in my mind. The continued imprisonment of an outspoken mother on spurious charges for defending her illegitimately assaulted community is not development but utter decline and injustice.

A corridor of illusions

To reiterate, Tep Vanny is not alone. She shares with many others her suffered abuses at the hands of the Cambodian criminal justice system and she shares her story with the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been affected by unjust land grabs and evictions. Today, her usually isolated post-trial march down the courthouse halls was done with arms around her two children, who were finally allowed into the courtroom as the two-and-a-half-hour appeal came to a close. However, to ensure she did not forget where she was going and who she had upset, eight officers surrounded them, escorting her quickly away from her family into the police vehicle to take her far from home.

Elections in Cambodia: Redirecting Forces of Repression into Winds of Change

Rintoul AndrewBy Andrew Rintoul

As the sun rose over Boeung Tompun in Phnom Penh on a Saturday morning, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters began arriving in droves. This was the first day of the campaign period, with the elections still several weeks away. Tuk-tuks, moto-bikes, and vehicles were all emblazoned with CNRP motifs while matching hats, shirts and flags were passed around the 10,000 supporters present. Through the lens of a DSLR, I observed supporters celebrating and dancing, honking their horns loudly as smiling spectators waived and asked for party hats to be thrown their way. I listened to the cheers and calls for change in Khmer and popular Cambodian pop songs dubbed over with CNRP-supporting lyrics. I heard a recorded speech of Sam Rainsy, former CNRP leader and now exiled man due to spurious criminal charges pressed against him in Cambodia, through a loud-speaker hitched to the top of a Jeep.

The mood was festive, the people were excited and passionate under the 40-degree sun, and the diverse amalgam of security personnel and military police under the auspices of the CPP did nothing but stand idly by as songs were sung late into the evening.

CNRP supporters cheer in Phnom Penh

It has been nearly one month since the country took to the polls for the first time since 2013. The ruling party, eventually settling on the current name, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has held power in the country since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. For over three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen has sat at the head of this regime, carefully crafting his image as a pseudo-deity and a generous and supreme leader. His heavy-handed policies and powerful military arm and security forces have been instrumental in maintaining this lustre and preserving the power of his party.

Four years ago, this armour revealed an unexpected crack as the general elections witnessed an extremely close race between the CPP and what has come to be the main opposition, the CNRP. Following results depicting a slight victory for the CPP, CNRP members and outside observers demanded accountability and argued election-rigging. Yet, in what appears to be familiar Hun Sen-style, the storm eventually blew over and the CNRP, which had boycotted the National Assembly for a year, finally came back into the fold and returned as the opposition.

It is this tumultuous political climate that provided the backdrop for the lead-up to the commune elections of June 4th. In the past four years, the voices of opposition supporters and any calls for change disruptive to the status quo have faced a string of new repressive legislation designed specifically for suppressing dissent. Under the guise of vague language such as public order, national security, incitement, colour revolutions, and confusion, new laws have created an arsenal of inaccessible rules giving authorities the capacity to manipulate and arbitrarily apply them to their liking. Human rights defenders are increasingly targeted and vulnerable, as are the organizations which set out to defend them.

CNRP rally through Phnom Penh

The streets seemed eerily quiet on the morning of June 4th. When I arrived at the office, citizens across the country had already been voting for thirty minutes. I quickly took a seat at my desk alongside several others to assist in running the organization’s live-stream of the event as reports and photos from monitors in the field began flooding in. In the afternoon, I accompanied a senior lawyer to a polling station and observed the last of the voters trickling in, followed by a closed-door counting of the ballots. Moments before the counting began, voters had been ushered out of the premises by heavily-armed security personnel who stood guard at the gates until the ballots were fully counted and relocated in transport vehicles.

Security guards sit at a polling station in Phnom Penh

In the weeks following the elections, the atmosphere in the capital has taken on a much different tone. The energy of the pre-election period has faded, likely to come back ten-fold in the national elections next year. According to the official results released last week, the ruling party maintained its grip on power by a large margin, in line with the expected result. Though not victorious, the opposition party made massive gains from the last commune elections, moving from winning only 40 communes in 2012 (combining the wins of the two parties who merged the following year to become the CNRP) to winning 489 out of the 1646 communes this year. Despite its apparently poor performance in the 2012 commune elections, the CNRP still took home 44.46% of the popular vote in the 2013 general elections to the CPP’s 48.83% of the vote; with twelve times more communes won this year, a continuation of the trend could mean a strong victory by the opposition in 2018.

It remains to be seen exactly what the ruling party has in store for the country in the lead-up to next year’s general elections. Certainly, much of this is dependent upon the actions and movements of civil society and the opposition party in the months to come. A glimpse into what may be in store occurred last week as Prime Minister Hun Sen called upon the Interior Ministry to investigate the legality and neutrality of an NGO collective after they reported several concerns over the recent elections. Amidst the uncertainty of the immediate future lies an inevitable truth; repressive legislation and targeted crackdowns will persist, but as they do, they will be met with a resilient and robust civil society capable of redirecting forces of repression into winds of change.

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.

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            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

Resisting the Civil Society Kill Switch

2015 Noga BrodieBy Brodie Noga

The past month has been a blur of activity and emotion as LICADHO has, alongside numerous others, led a campaign against an NGO and Association law that, if enacted, will effectively give the government a kill-switch for critical civil society. The Law on Associations and NGOs, or more commonly, LANGO, requires mandatory registration of all NGOs and any group of citizens who “work together for a common purpose” and gives the Minister of Interior the power to ban any group that threatens the peace, security, traditions or “good culture” of Cambodia. In a country where vague laws are the basis for arresting and jailing activists, there is no doubt that LANGO will be a powerful tool to silence dissenting voices.

Protestors holding anti-LANGO signs are stand on a blockade across from police.

LANGO protestors blocked by police from marching to the National Assembly. Photo: LICADHO

While human rights NGOs like LICADHO certainly have much to fear from the enactment of such a law, it is community and grassroots activists that have the most to fear. In the past years an influx of foreign investment has caused the value of urban and rural land to skyrocket, prompting numerous corrupt land-dealings that force poor communities from their homes. Many of those evicted communities have organized prominent campaigns against the government, bringing, from its perspective, unwanted attention to their plight. In the past the government has not hesitated to use police and private security guards to brutalize protestors or abuse the judicial system to imprison them. Now, with senior politicians spouting conspiratorial theories that the CIA and MI6 are funding such subversive groups, LANGO will make all such community movements de jure criminal organizations.

The campaign against LANGO has been a process of organized chaos, made all the more difficult by the fact that a draft of the law was only obtained via a government leak a month ago. However the Say No campaign has also been inspiring, with youth creating songs and music videos denouncing the law, organizations releasing thousands of balloons across the city, and groups coming together to protest despite government warnings not do so. And as a result of tireless efforts of numerous campaigners the chorus of critical voices has steadily increased, both domestically and abroad. Yet despite the resistance, the law passed through the National Assembly on Monday with the opposition party boycotting the vote. Now all the law needs is approval by the government controlled senate and signature by the king.

And so it is easy to be disheartened. The future of not only LICADHO, but Cambodia as a whole has become immensely uncertain, particularly as government plans to pass other repressive laws, leaving little room for hope – other than in the knowledge that there are many across Cambodia willing to continue speak out (though it is the risks of doing so that continue to worry me). It has left me with many questions to consider; questions about the failure of development organizations to speak out on behalf of Cambodia, of the reticence of foreign governments to get involved, of what it means to express solidarity where the risks are disproportionately felt by your local allies. But for now I am too tired to answer them and can only hope that the next weeks bring a welcomed change of course.

Monitoring a Trial for Insurrection

2015 Noga BrodieBy Brodie Noga

The morning heat is starting as the defendants filter into the courtroom. Most are smiling and laughing, some are taking selfies, one jokes that the court is starting to feel like his second home, one is in tears. In total there are 11 men sitting on the bench reserved for the accused, each charged with either participating in or leading an insurrection, facing 10-20 year minimum sentences for the respective counts.

The charges stem from the events of July 15th, 2014, where several hundred protested the closure of Freedom Park, a popular site of political demonstrations. While the police stood by, private security guards took out bamboo batons and began beating protestors. Some members of the crowd retaliated, striking back with PVC flagpoles and batons they had taken from the attacking guards. When the violence settled, both protestors and guards had been injured, some severely. In the days that followed, MPs from the opposition party CNRP who had attended were arrested, along with party officials and supporters.

The proceedings I witness pour cold water on any law school idealism that legal argumentation will carry the day. Contrary to the logical fact patterns we disassemble in final exams, where the law is an abstract and tangible thing, the trial is simply politics by other means. The criminal code provisions are vague and harsh, recent reforms of the judiciary leave judges squarely under the control of the executive, and the rules of evidence are co-extensive with the discretion of the judge. Indeed, there is little attempt to hide the appearance of collusion between prosecutor and the bench, as they periodically take “washroom breaks” and follow one another into their chambers.

The trial is nothing new or unexpected in Cambodia. Criminal charges have been used regularly in the past to give the ruling party bargaining leverage over the opposition.

This is of course troubling on a number of levels. But for a law student emerging from the depths of the academic study of law it represents the danger of learning law solely in the abstract. The law is found not just in its written form, rather it is a practiced enactment of state power.

This may seem like common sense, but it is easy enough to lose sight of when the immediate success in law school depends on your in-depth knowledge of the written law. If anything, this past week has made me reflect on how to be an effective advocate requires not just legal knowledge, but adeptness at negotiating the social and political context in which one is advocating.

A First Blog Entry from a LICADHO Intern: Arrival and First Few Tasks

2014-Couloumbe-JonathanBy Jonathan Coulombe

It’s been a little more than a Month since I started my internship at the LICADHO in Phnom Penh. The adaptation to the hectic capital city of Cambodia took some time, but I settled into a nice little routine and now enjoy some of its charms while I focus on my work during week days.

licadho office

Speaking of work, I arrived in Cambodia during important times and events regarding freedom of assembly in the country. This, as I would find out, would be the major topic of the year with regards to human rights. In fact, the government had issued a ban on public gatherings on early January, following massive protests from Garment workers and human rights activists. This ban has now been set aside, but gatherings and marches are each time met with heavy forces in order to intimidate the people.

I came in Cambodia during the hearings of high profile cases regarding crackdowns that occurred during these marches at the beginning of the year. While this timely arrival delayed my internship, LICADHO not having the human resources to welcome me among its team, the NGO recommended that I followed the events closely, which I did (I will post an entry specifically on the subject shortly).  As I started, we could sense that the organization was recovering from a long struggle the drained its time and energy.

That said, my tasks here since I started mostly consisted of helping the staff to get back on track with most of their activities. This is how I helped LICADHO as of today. I was asked to assist the organization in compiling data and writing different sections for its 6-month report. I also transcribed notes from the testimonies of the trials for the 23 accused of the high profile cases, to be put to use on a later date when we will focus on the defence for the appeal (which will surely happen).

I was also tasked on written a graphic report on the different Police forces, what distinguishes one from the others, and their powers and limitations. This is quite important for people are confused in light of the enormous amount of departments, jurisdictions, and uniforms. More importantly, some forces do not have the power to arrest people unless a flagrant crime is committed in front of them. However, as Cambodians do not know their rights and the limitations of these forces, officers may abuse their power and illegally arrest or detain people.

Other small tasks have consisted, for the moment, on working on the photo database, doing research for land eviction cases, supporting detainees in Municipal court, and monitoring protests.

These are interesting and changing times for Cambodia. My position in LICADHO enables me to learn rapidly and in depths about the occurring events. Hence, through this blog I will be sure to address some issues specifically. Stay tune for the next few entries…

Frénésie électorale, version Cambodge

2013 Lea Pelletier-Marcotte 100x150Lea Pelletier-Marcotte

L’attente des résultats suite à un scrutin varie selon l’endroit où vous vous trouvez dans le monde. Au Québec, au Canada et aux États-Unis, on passe la soirée à suivre le dépouillement jusqu’au dévoilement des résultats, quelques heures plus tard. C’est souvent l’occasion de se retrouver entre amis, discuter de la campagne électorale qui se termine, partager ses pronostics, voir la déception des uns, la joie des autres mais surtout, d’observer le développement graduel de la mosaïque électorale. Je me souviens avoir séjourné en France pendant les élections présidentielles de 2007. J’avais prévu passer la soirée devant la télé, mais ai découvert que les résultats étaient annoncés tout d’un coup, à 20 heures.

Au Cambodge, deux semaines après la tenue des élections nationales, on est toujours dans l’attente des résultats.

Ce n’est que quelques jours avant d’atterrir au Cambodge que j’ai découvert que des élections allaient avoir lieu pendant mon stage. Je me suis dit que cela allait très certainement annoncer la couleur de celui-ci, et je ne me suis pas trompée.

Pendant mon stage, j’ai touché à tout. J’ai travaillé sur divers dossiers, divers rapports, diverses situations. À aucun moment je ne me suis plaint de la monotonie de mes tâches. Au contraire, à certains moments, je ne savais plus où donner de la tête. Mais malgré la grande diversité des événements, incidents et autres violations des droits de l’Homme auxquels nous furent confrontés, la grande majorité d’entre eux avaient cet arrière-goût électoral. Et je ne parle pas, ici, de ce qui s’est produit pendant la campagne électorale et dont le caractère politique est évident. Je parle surtout de ce qui l’a précédé.

L’année 2012 a définitivement mis la table pour les élections de 2013. Arrestations, harcèlement judiciaire, emprisonnements et assassinats dirigés contre des critiques du gouvernement, activistes, journalistes… Ce fut l’année la plus violente documentée jusqu’ici par la LICADHO.

Puis, il y a le fait que le leader de l’opposition se trouvait en exil, et que tous les membres de l’opposition siégeant à cambol’Assemblée nationale en furent expulsés deux mois avant les élections.

Ajoutons également le fait que le taux d’inscription des électeurs était, dans plusieurs secteurs de Phnom Penh, de plus de 100%, allant même jusqu’à atteindre 168%.

Ajoutons finalement la censure des médias pendant la campagne électorale, et les nombreuses menaces dont furent victimes certaines ONG.

Au vu de ceci,  et de nombreuses autres irrégularités dans la préparation de sélections, il n’est pas surprenant que le Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) ait déclaré que les élections de 2013 s’annonçaient être « the least fair » depuis celles organisées par l’Autorité provisoire des Nations Unies au Cambodge en 1993.

Dans le cadre de mon stage, j’ai eu à agir en tant qu’observatrice des élections, rôle par rapport auquel j’étais plutôt tiède. Le côté paternaliste de la chose me laissait dubitative. Qui suis-je, moi, avec mon badge, pour vous observer et vous dire si tout est fait « comme il le faut »? De plus, advenant que les élections ne soient qu’une gigantesque tricherie, ma seule présence parviendrait à les légitimer. Mais puisque tous les employés de mon ONG agissaient à titre d’observateurs, alors je n’avais d’autre choix que de m’acquitter de cette tâche moi aussi, peu importe ce que j’en pensais.

Notre équipe avait reçu des consignes quelque peu différentes des autres. Nous allions visiter des bureaux de vote, mais allions également visiter des communautés pour recueillir des témoignages sur leur expérience aux urnes. En l’espèce, les deux communautés que nous avons visitées étaient constituées d’habitants des communes de Borei Keila et de Dey Krahorm, à Phnom Penh, qui furent évincés par les autorités dans les dernières années et relocalisés en dehors de la ville,  à environ 45-60 minutes de celle-ci. Nous trouvions intéressant de se pencher sur ces communautés relocalisées, au vu de la violation de leur droit au logement par les autorités ainsi que de leurs conditions de vie actuelles, très difficiles. En effet, puisqu’il y avait peu de chances que leur vote aille du côté du parti au pouvoir, le gouvernement avait plusieurs raisons de leur compliquer la tâche.  Il était donc probable que certaines irrégularités soient visibles, le jour du vote, aux bureaux de scrutin assignés à ces communautés.

Au final, mon équipe et moi n’avons été témoins que de quelques incidents, mais rien qui laissait penser à des irrégularités systématiques dans les bureaux de scrutin que nous avons observés. Les membres des communautés que nous avons interrogés, communautés avec lesquelles la LICADHO travaille depuis des années, nous ont avoué ne pas avoir été victimes ou témoins d’incidents qui indiqueraient qu’ils étaient particulièrement ciblés. Ainsi, à la fin de la journée, je me suis surprise à penser que la catastrophe annoncée ne s’était pas produite. Du moins, si l’on se fie à mon expérience. D’autres bureaux de scrutins furent plus agités, certaines personnes n’ont pu voter pour une panoplie de raisons, et certains problèmes sont survenus qui ont requis l’intervention des policiers. Mais de mon côté, c’était le calme plat.

Peu après, je me suis mise dans la peau d’une observatrice qui ne serait arrivée au Cambodge que quelques jours ou quelques heures avant le jour du scrutin. Je n’aurais pas vraiment été témoin du climat électoral, ni avant, ni pendant la campagne. Je ne serais au Cambodge que pour observer comment se déroule le jour du scrutin : listes, pièces d’identification, ballot réglementaire, isoloirs adéquats, ballot bien plié, bien déposé dans l’urne avec le sceau du bon côté, encre sur le doigt jusqu’à la jointure, décompte des votes transparent et bien effectué. Check. Check. Check.

Le chef de l’opposition qui a reçu un pardon royal et qui est rentré d’exil. Check.

Et puis, il n’y a pas eu trop de violence. Check.

Oui, je pourrais comprendre que certaines personnes se risqueraient à qualifier ces élections de  «libres» et «justes» en ne considérant que ces quelques critères sommaires, et en ne se basant que sur le déroulement du jour du scrutin. Certains l’ont fait : l’International Conference of Asian Political Parties a vite annoncé, après le scrutin, que ces élections étaient “a triumph of popular will and a victory for the Cambodian people”, sans préciser, toutefois, qu’ils ne se basaient que ce qui s’est produit le jour du scrutin même. Pas avant. Bien sûr, le Comité national des Élections, organe tout à fait non-indépendant en charge d’organiser le scrutin, s’est saisi de cette citation et la brandit désormais bien haut en réponse  à tous ces détracteurs qui, au lendemain du scrutin, osaient dire que le processus démocratique n’était pas si «libre», «juste» et «transparent» que ça.

Pour quiconque a moindrement étudié les jours, semaines et mois qui ont précédé les élections au Cambodge, qualifier son processus démocratique de succès, de symbole de sa maturité politique et la démonstration d’une transition réussie, est tout à fait absurde. Peu importe ce qui se déroule le jour des élections, celui-ci n’est que le point culminant d’un processus démocratique qui se doit d’être continuel. La démocratie, la liberté, la justice, la transparence, la non-violence, ce n’est pas l’affaire d’une journée. Pourtant, c’est ce que retiennent nombre d’observateurs internationaux qui ne viennent que pour se faire mettre, l’espace d’un court séjour, de la poudre aux yeux, et qui repartent avec le sentiment d’avoir été les témoins d’un haut moment de la démocratie dans un pays qui, malheureusement, n’a pas fini de soigner ses plaies.

Où en sommes-nous? Le parti de l’opposition revendique la victoire après l’annonce des résultats préliminaires. Le CPP n’est pas très chaud à l’idée d’une enquête internationale, ni à la trop grande implication de la société civile dans celle-ci. Le vent de racisme et de xénophobie contre les cambodgiens d’origine vietnamienne, très puissant pendant la campagne électorale, s’amplifie. Un peu partout au pays, des tanks sont déployés, tels des fantômes qui attendent la suite de l’histoire. On veut calmer les passions tout en les attisant, dans l’attente des résultats, qui seront loin de calmer le jeu.

La manipulation des cicatrices et des esprits ne connaît, au Cambodge, aucune limite.

 

 

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