Human Rights Protection in Modern Cambodia: Building on Unstable Grounds

On January 3, ongoing street protests by garment workers in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, turned violent. Government troops opened fire into a crowd of civilians, killing four and leaving one person missing. A total of 23 civilians were arrested and 21 are still detained without bail. Nearly four months later, there still have been no known official inquiries into the handling of the events by the security forces.
Twenty years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, which formally ended Cambodia’s war and aimed to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights in Cambodia, the January 3 crackdown is a sharp reminder that the country’s institutions still do not guarantee protection of basic human rights for all of its citizens.
Part of Cambodia’s challenge in dealing with human rights lies in the fact that justice in modern Cambodia has never had secure foundations. The tribunal to bring to justice the perpetrators of the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979 has provided an ever-present reminder of the atrocities committed under Pol Pot. However, the tribunal itself, which has had the mandate to consider the responsibility of a small number of the inner cadre of the Pol Pot regime, has resulted in only one conviction so far. The accounting of the Khmer Rouge atrocities has occurred outside of a process of national reconciliation, thus forsaking a deeper healing process. It is no surprise that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen warned voters in last year’s national elections that the country would return to civil war if the opposition party won the election and pursued its policy platform, which included prosecution of former Khmer Rouge members in his government that were complicit with crimes against humanity.
As the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) consolidated power over the last 20 years, there has been a gradual shift away from political killings and a dramatic decrease in lawlessness and violence, and child labor has been cut in half. Human rights abuses related to mob killings and summary executions have become the exception. In fact, in the run-up to last year’s elections there was not one major violent incident. The price for stability has been that the CPP and the state are inseparable. The CPP enjoys full control of the military and the police, without the practice of checks and balances from an independent legislature or judiciary. A peaceful transition of power through elections may indeed be unlikely, as the prime minister has predicted, yet the pressure for reform still mounts.
Furthermore, the country’s economic development has been driven in large part by exploitation of natural resources, which has brought Cambodia’s elite into conflict over land rights with the less powerful. An estimated 400,000 people have been affected by land disputes since 2003. Eighty percent of Cambodians depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and the majority of the indigenous people still live mostly in forested areas. Since 1995, the government has granted an estimated 2.1 million hectares in economic land concessions for use of state land to private sector investors. These land concessions often fail to follow legal requirements, chiefly the conducting of environmental impact assessments and obtaining the consent of the occupants. A number of studies have shown that the court system systematically fails to provide the checks and balances on abuses of power to protect human rights.
As recently as February this year, nearly 100 families living in Kiri Sakor district in Koh Kong province had their homes destroyed by the Tianjin Union Development Group to make way for a $3.8-billion tourism mega-project. According to LICADHO, a prominent human rights NGO in Cambodia, the families were not compensated and did not have an alternative place to live, thus took up makeshift shelter nearby. Many of the other families affected by the mega-project have been relocated to upland areas away from fishing grounds on which their livelihoods have depended. Public demonstrations by the aggrieved parties have reportedly been met by intimidation from security forces, including soldiers. In northern Ratanakiri province, hydropower dams have cleared land and uprooted indigenous people from their traditional communal lands.
Public acceptance of the country’s inadequate protection of human rights may be turning. In last year’s elections, the CPP, while retaining the majority, saw a precipitous drop in its popularity in favor of the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). While no single factor has explained the shift, it is of note that more than two-thirds of Cambodia’s population was born after the genocide. Youth in Cambodia do not carry the same trauma and fear as their elders. For these reasons civic life is taking on a more informed, younger, and confident face, as demonstrated in the turnout for last year’s national assembly elections. A new generation of activists is representing workers striving to protect their rights in the country’s first democratic unions.
Social media has played an increasing role in organizing and raising awareness for the protection of human rights, and for strengthening the political opposition. In the post-election period, CNRP has aggressively used Facebook and selectively capitalized on social organizing activities of aggrieved groups. Late last year, the country experienced its first large-scale demonstrations made up of labor organizations, monks, farmers groups, opposition party members, and other activist groups. In December, the Phnom Penh Post estimated that at one rally, over 100,000 people marched on the streets of the capital. As the January 3 crackdown suggested, such social organizing openly threatens the legitimacy, if not longevity, of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule. However, the government’s effective ban on freedom of assembly for opposition groups, and a new draft cyber law that threatens to curb freedom of speech, will no doubt become catalysts for further social mobilization and political contestation.
As Pol Pot’s regime recedes into the country’s history books, the government’s heavy-handed use of force is also likely to taper off. The negative consequences of such violations on CPP’s economic and political interests, domestically and abroad, are increasingly significant. Despite these positive signs, Cambodia’s governing institutions still have a long way to go to guarantee the protection of human rights. Constructive moves in the short run would see the CPP seizing on the post-election momentum for reform and gain the high ground by holding violators of human rights accountable. Even if the political parties lack the incentives right now to commit themselves to such directions, it would be wise for the country’s thought leaders in academia, media, and policy research to undertake the onerous task of looking ahead – to spell out a reform agenda that moves beyond partisan interests and outlines the structural changes required to end what has emerged from the Khmer Rouge era as a zero-sum political system.
Koy Neam is a program manager for The Asia Foundation’s Law and Human Rights Program in Cambodia, and Silas Everett is the Foundation’s country representative there. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.