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Seeking Justice in Cambodia

Launch of Sue Coffey (ed) Seeking Justice in Cambodia: Human Rights Defenders Speak Out (MUP, 2018), University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 14 November 2018

One of the greatest disappointments of my public life has been the international community’s failure – and my failure, the failure of all of us – to match the achievement of peace in Cambodia, which so many of us worked so hard to achieve, with any comparable achievement in relation to democracy and human rights.

The writing was on the wall in the immediate aftermath of the 1993 election. Many of you will remember the euphoria we felt when, in their scores of thousands, thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives, and defying the threats and fears of Khmer Rouge bomb attacks, ordinary Cambodians – men, women, children, whole extended families from grannies to babies – lined up at the polling stations.

The clear winner in was, to most people’s surprise, Sihanouk's royalist party, with Hun Sen's CPP coming second. But Hun Sen absolutely refused to accept this, and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement was eventually adopted, and accepted without much pushback by the international community. This was a foretaste of things to come, with Hun Sen ever since resisting – with violence as necessary – any serious challenge to his party’s authority, and human rights generally faring no better.

You will remember how in March 1997 the grenade attack on an opposition rally led by Sam Rainsy killed sixteen people and injured more than a hundred. Then how, in July that year, after an uneasy period of sharing power with Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s royalists, Hun Sen launched a bloody coup in which his opponents were exiled, arrested, tortured, and in some cases summarily executed.

While these terrible episodes did generate international condemnation at the time, none of the international reaction was sufficiently sustained or disciplined to be effective in curbing the consolidation of Hun Sen’s autocratic power. It was enough for the international community that the formal trappings of electoral democracy were restored, with nobody too keen to explore the substantive reality underneath. At the time, I wanted to believe that the reverses of 1997 would be temporary, and there were too many like me.

But things got no better in the years that followed. In 2014, there was yet more deadly violence against unarmed demonstrators protesting the previous year’s deeply flawed national election, and the shooting dead in Phnom Penh of five striking garment workers while peacefully demanding a minimum liveable wage. This led me at last to write a globally syndicated opinion piece saying, in so many words: ‘Cambodia’s government has been getting away with murder…Hun Sen and his government have now moved beyond the civilized pale. It is time for Cambodia’s political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated, and sanctioned by the international community.’

That position has been amply vindicated by subsequent events, culminating over the last two years in, among many other outrages:

  • the brazen daylight murder of the prominent political activist Kem Lay, whose widow Bou Rouchana is now with us in Australia;
  • the shutting down of Cambodia Daily after being hit with an impossibly large tax bill, the closure of more than a dozen independent radio stations, and systematic harassment of other journalists;
  • the persecution, through legislative constraints and on-the-ground intimidation, of trade unions, environmental and other NGOs and any other channels for organised dissent;
  • the imprisonment of opposition leader Kem Sokha on a grotesquely trumped-up ‘treason’ charge; the periodic threats from Hun Sen or his acolytes to ‘beat up’ – or worse – those Cambodians abroad who protest against him; and
  • the shamelessly outrageous use of a compliant Supreme Court last November to ban the main opposition party – the CNRP – and prohibit all of its sitting national assembly members, and a number of other party officials as well from participating in politics for the next five years; with all CNRP seats at all government levels then redistributed to government supporters.

With Hun Sen riding high after this year’s sham election; building a family dynasty to survive him; thriving on the web of corruption he has built around him and the nakedly cynical financial support the country has been receiving from China; and with neither ASEAN nor the UN Security Council nor the US and its allies, including Australia, willing to even try to apply any serious countervailing pressure, there are not many grounds for optimism that this deeply unhappy situation is going to be reversed any time soon.

But what does give me hope and optimism, and what should give us all grounds for hope, is the pride, courage and resilience of the Cambodian people; the abundant evidence that exists that the overwhelming majority want to escape the yoke of authoritarianism and to restore decency and dignity in the way they are governed; and the extraordinary courage, commitment and capacity of those human rights defenders who, despite all the risks, continue to speak out and work for change, and whose voices are so superbly captured in this book.

The stories in this book, all of them compelling and all of them adding much that is new to the public record, cover the many areas of human rights for which people are still fighting in Cambodia, including the right to live free of violence, to peaceful assembly and association, to separation of powers and an independent judiciary, to fair distribution of wealth, to not be deprived arbitrarily of property, and to a reasonable standard of living.

And these stories are told by some truly remarkable individuals. There’s Thun Saray, a political prisoner under the Vietnamese, who founded ADHOC (Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association) in 1991. There’s Kek Galabru who established LICADHO (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights) first in Paris, in 1991, and then in Cambodia in 1992. Both of these pioneers still lead the same organizations today, and have a long record of mentoring others – like Chhith Sam Ath of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, and Koul Panha, Executive Director of COMFREL (Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia), whose voices are all here recorded.

We have here also the voice of Kem Sokha himself, who founded CCHR (Cambodian Centre for Human Rights) before turning to direct politics, who mentored his successor Ou Virak – who we are absolutely delighted to have here today -- who went on to found the think-tank Future Forum, and in turn mentored his own successor at CCHR, Chak Sopheap whose voice also comes through loud and clear in this text.

What intrigues and inspires me most about all the voices of these human rights defenders – and I haven’t mentioned them all -- is how optimistic they remain, how confident they are in the capacity and commitment of young Cambodians, how much hope and belief they have that decency really will ultimately prevail.

And they are doing what needs to be done to turn that aspiration into reality, however long it takes. They are monitoring and, often at considerable risk, getting the evidence of the regime’s bad behaviour out into the public domain; they are clearly articulating the necessary reforms to institutional structures and processes; they are, as best they can, making their voice heard with other governments, encouraging them to communicate the necessary international concerns through all available bilateral, regional and global mechanisms; and, above all, thy are keeping alight the flame of hope in the Cambodian people.

There are a number of people who have made this story-telling possible. There are the courageous story-tellers themselves, like Ou Virak from whom we will shortly hear, who have in many cases put their personal safety on the line in contributing to this project. There are the Cambodian translators Chanroeun Pa and Sophea Yi, who have made it possible for these Cambodian voices to reach an international audience. And there is Sally Heath and her outstandingly professional team at Melbourne University Press, who understood from the beginning the importance of this book, and have as always, come up with a product to match.

But above all, overwhelmingly, the thanks of all of us are due to Sue Coffey, whose idea and inspiration this book has been, born immediately of her experience in 2012-13 working in Cambodia for Australia’s aid program as communications adviser to the NGO Forum in Cambodia, and drawing on her formidable expertise as a communications and policy advisor on human rights issues working for many years at home and abroad, for governments, peak bodies and not-for-profits. She has been passionately committed to ensuring that the voices of these human rights defenders be heard, both at home and abroad; she has been both expert and indefatigable in gathering and editing the Cambodian contributions, along with the additional pieces from UNTAC’s Benny Widyono and the UN’s Rhona Smith that round out the volume and add to its value; and – I think we should also gratefully acknowledge – she has been extraordinarily generous with her own resources in making all this happen, not least supporting a Khmer-language edition of this book, and flying to Australia for this launch event Ou Virak, and the translation team.

Cambodia and Cambodians could have no better friend than Sue Coffey. I have been delighted to do what I could to support this book from the outset. I am delighted now to have the honour of launching it, and urging you and your friends and colleagues to buy it. And I am delighted now to invite to the lectern, to bask in your approbation for having made it all possible, Sue Coffey.