Cambodian protesters get photo smart

Lines are becoming blurred between who seeks to defend human rights and who pursues political change in Phnom Penh.

Clothilde Le Coz | 20 Jan 2015 10:39 GMT | Human Rights

On the same day as the 30th anniversary of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule, which began on January 14,1985, three alleged members of the Khmer People’s Power Movement (KPPM) were jailed.

They were sentenced to up to six years in prison under an act which criminalises the use of force or violence to deter electors from placing their vote. The activists were known to have distributed watches, DVDs and T-shirts with political messages on them including calls not to vote in “unfair” elections.

Human Rights Watch sees the three decade commemoration as significant, a moment which “highlights the need for influential governments and donors to strengthen efforts for human rights and democratic reforms” in Cambodia.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Cambodian government, has reservations about their motives. He welcomes financial help from foreign countries to strengthen efforts in the field of human rights, but is cautious of the motives of the external players involved.

“There can be interference from foreigners who use Cambodia as a scapegoat to justify their actions,” he said.

Such misgivings apparently stem from the fact that three of the major NGOs defending human rights locally in Cambodia are all funded by western governments.

This year, our actions had a bigger impact. I think the fact that we could spread the information quickly to show the situation in Cambodia has helped.

– Srey Sohpea, 38, activist, Boeung Kak Lake neighbourhood

“Why not give us the chance to establish democracy and human rights? Foreigners help but should not decide for Cambodia. We are not smarter, but we are smart enough to choose our own path,” he told al Jazeera.

While the KPPM is certainly political, even local residents’ issues are being caught in a tangle which the government paints as the blurring of the fine line between defending human rights and influencing political change. A blurring which is seeing an increasing number of Cambodian activists accused of campaigning not for human rights – but for political action against Hun Sen’s rule.

Bov Sohpea, 38, has been demonstrating for the release of friends and neighbours who were arrested on November 10, 2014, after organising a protest concerning better neighbourhood sanitation. After the protest in front of the capital’s City Hall, the seven activists were sentenced to a year in prison and fined on charges of obstructing public traffic.

“Every time we demonstrate, we are labelled as political activists. We are all victims demanding our rights but the government does not want to help us,” she told Al Jazeera.

Smartphone activism

Sohpea has been living in the Boeung Kak Lake neighbourhood since 1993, and has become one of the most active campaigners against the eviction of families there.

“This year, our actions had a bigger impact. Out of the 794 families affected by evictions, 600 of them found a solution. I think the fact that we could spread the information quickly to show the situation in Cambodia has helped.”

In 2014, the Boeung Kak Lake community received financial help from local human rights organisations to publicise their situation by providing banners and T-shirts. Smartphones were part of the funding package.

In the past year, such initiatives have encouraged the growth of grassroots movements across Cambodia. Giving small communities a stronger voice with which to express themselves.

Local NGOs have been involved in giving journalism training to activists wishing to cover the national elections in July 2013. Demonstrations started to be livestreamed and assaults on striking garment workers in early 2014 were also recorded.

The 2013-2014 project, including the distribution of smartphones, was requested by Swedish agency DIAKONIA from the Swedish development agency (SIDA). The amount requested was $900,000. The Swedish embassy confirmed in an email they would approve the amount for democracy, human rights and the rule of law in 2015.

The amount represents 45 percent of Sweden’s total budget for Cambodia for this year.

Jean-Francois Cautain, EU’s ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia, confirmed to Al Jazeera that the European Union has also been providing some $1m per year between 2007 and 2013 for human rights and democracy in the country.

Siphan, unsurprisingly, has a less enthusiastic view of such large donations. “Local NGOs pretending to promote democracy act like a state within the state. This is why it is sometimes confusing. They are not supposed to act like a judge,” he stated.

Inevitable conflict

According to the Center for Non-For-Profit Law, there are 3,492 NGOs and associations registered with the Ministry of Interior. Of those, 1,350 of them are considered to be active. The government database lists more foreign than local NGOs.  

Most of the local human rights organisations came to existence during the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Today, these NGOs remain largely funded by western donors, primarily the US and the European Union.

John Vighjen, an expert in humanitarian aid development working in Cambodia since 1990, does not see “any motivation for the Cambodian government to support any of the NGOs”.

But he feels, they need their presence to show the outside world the government wishes to protect democratic rights.

“However, this is purely for survival and to be able to say during electoral campaigns that they are not so different from the opposition,” he told Al Jazeera.

A necessary evil for the authorities, or a force for peaceful justice, human rights NGOs remain at risk of manipulation under a regime whose authority is older than its average citizen.