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Cambodia 2013: a look ahead


Lao Mong Hay political analyst

The ruling party will continue to rule, will win a majority to form the government, but I think there will be changes – not of the leadership but within the leadership. I think some ministers will be replaced by new and younger ones.

As to policies, I think the government needs to change, needs to better accommodate the wishes of people, especially to meet the demands of victims of land grabbers. And then, with it, the change or alteration of the economic land concession policy and the related economic development policy.

They cannot afford to rely solely on big companies, perhaps they need to promote the middle class or smaller or medium-sized landholders. I think if the government sticks to their current policy, there will more people affected by economic land concessions, and I think there will be backlash on foreign investor, especially Chinese investors. Some feel that some Chinese companies, and foreign companies in general, have been involved in that land-grabbing problem.

The situation cannot be allowed to continue. This affects the unity and stability of our nation. Connected with that, we cannot continue to go on with this system of justice.

The judiciary is dividing the nation now. To use the term of a Russian writer – it is dividing society into extraordinary people and ordinary people. The extraordinary are above the law, the ordinary are under the law. That cannot continue.

Another issue is corruption and the low wages that push this corruption. It is just a matter of time. It cannot continue going on like this. This also affects stability and national unity. When public institutions are not trusted by the people and when the judiciary is not trusted by the people, you cannot go on like that.

Phay Siphan spokesman for the Council for Ministers

As for the expectations of 2013, the government has set a goal of 7.1 per cent GDP growth and maintaining inflation so it is as low as it can be. Those are our goals for the economic sector.

Our second main project is reforming the judiciary system. There’s a number of challenges, including capacity building and improving the administration. All paperwork at the court office will be linked up with sophisticated machinery as part of the administrative reform.

Of course, we will be paying attention to the maintenance of the general election to ensure it takes place smoothly and according to schedule.

Also this year, we will be sending a draft human rights law to an inter-ministerial council soon. We want to reform the government response to human rights, on behalf of the people. We need a change of mindset so public servants provide better service to the people. It’s in the Council of Ministers now, and we’re still reviewing it. After it’s finished, it will be reviewed in a meeting presided over by the prime minister. We’re looking at general reform as well as judicial reform – change the mindset of the government attitude.

Especially with regards to corruption. That’s a big issue the government is working on tackling. Everyone wants to see this as a law.

There have been a number of good interactions between the government and civil society. There’s been more learning between the people and the government on how to reach a compromise. We got a lot of experience from the ASEAN Summit. The world leaders came to Cambodia, held bilateral talks, and we learned a lot.

Sia Phearum director general of Housing Rights Task Force

The national election in July is very important to the government. I don’t think they will evict people in big numbers before then – numbers won’t increase or decrease on what we have seen in the past year. But we predict that after the election, evictions will increase.

We are concerned that maybe more land activists will be sent to prison for exercising their freedom of expression in the next year. The government will continue to intimidate activists, because they are scared their protesting will affect their support before the election. But I think the government, if they don’t want more protests throughout 2013, will have to free activists, such as Yorm Bopha.

Otherwise people will keep protesting like they have been just yesterday morning.

The majority of land disputes have not been resolved – like Boeung Kak and Borei Keila. It’s still an ongoing issue.

Son Soubert adviser to King Norodom Sihamoni and historian

Well, I think a chapter of the history of Cambodia has been closed with the passing away of our revered King Father Norodom Sihanouk. But I think the constitutional monarchy as stipulated in the constitution will continue. I think the people have shown affection to the current King Norodom Sihamoni, especially during this mourning period.  

King Sihamoni also used to always go and meet the poorest people, just as King Sihanouk did in the past. I think the monarchy will continue. It is the only state institution that can rally all the people. It is an institution that offers real stability. However, it will feel a bit chilly anyhow without King Sihanouk.

Like the Supreme Council of the Magistracy – the king is the president of that council – there should be a Supreme Council of Defence and the king should preside over that.

 It is stipulated in the constitution that he is the guardian of sovereignty and territorial integrity, but if he has no means to say anything about that, you cannot say that. If they draft laws that have been adopted by the National Assembly, the king would voice his support, but no law has been drafted.

I am surprised that the opposition party did not raise this question at the National Assembly, but they did not. If an organic law is adopted, he can fulfil his role as king. But right now, he has no leverage.

Anne Heindel legal adviser at the Documentation Center of Cambodia

There is no doubt that Ieng Sary’s fragile health will continue to be a major concern at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in the upcoming year. The Trial Chamber has been holding proceedings in his physical absence, and his lawyers are going to do everything they can to both fight for his right to participate from the courtroom and also to have the quality of his participation from the audio/visual room monitored on a daily basis. They will no doubt be taking these challenges to the Supreme Court Chamber as soon as possible.

International Co-Investigating Judge Mark Harmon’s decision to let the public know about the additional crime sites being investigated in Case 004 is significant, because it tells us both that he has accepted the international prosecutor’s supplementary submission from 2011, and that he is heeding the Pre-Trial Chamber’s ruling that victims have a right to more information so they can exercise their right to participate as civil parties.

My hope is that now, four years after these cases were sent to the co-investigating judges, a thorough investigation will finally be conducted so the process can move forward fairly and efficiently.

Should that happen, it is difficult to say what would come next, as it will hinge not only on the government’s response, but also on donor’s willingness to fund additional trials – a dubious proposition.

Moeun Tola head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center

Cambodia and Malaysia plan to sign a memorandum of understanding regarding domestic labour, but it’s not clear about the date. The two governments have not agreed yet. But what we can say is the MoU needs to incorporate recommendations from civil society.

We have to look at the stories and issues from 2010, 2011 and 2012, the lessons learned, to develop the tools of 2013. There have been lessons learned from Thailand. A lot of workers failed to register under the national verification policy of Thailand – the process of implementation was not transparent and it was not sold effectively. If Cambodia and Malaysia have the clear political will, they should provide the clear legal frameworks in order to respond to all the issues so far.

I think the numbers of migrant labourers abroad will be going up. I do not see any progress in Cambodia with regard to the wage issues and working conditions. When workers strike, they get shot, they are criminalised. With these concerns, it is hard for unions to help the workers demand benefits, demand high wages, so the lowest wage workers cannot survive. So I think more people will be migrating, especially after the signing of an MoU with Malaysia. Personally, I’m so concerned, because this has not been fixed yet.

Marcus Hardtke Southeast Asia program co-ordinator at ARA

When it comes to forest management, the big elephant in the room is organised illegal logging in economic land concessions. It’s been going on for a few years now, exploiting a loophole in the forestry and land law. Large areas in Kratie and Kampong Thom are being levelled as we speak, with more to come. So this year might be the year it finally comes out into open.

I think in 2013 it really reaches a point where it’s getting totally out of control and it needs to be addressed. This year’s an election year, so there is a chance we’ll get a little bit of commitment.

The second issue is the continued destruction of protected areas of the country. It seems the government has given up on the idea of protected areas. In some areas, more than 80 per cent is gone.

NGOs are just looking the other way, and that’s another issue that will have to be addressed in 2013. They have a nice little trick up their sleeves: when the problem becomes public, they blame their government counterpart. With that, they can prolong this for a few years until funding runs out, moves on. In 2013, they’ll have to address this problem now.

Nobody should use this term “development” anymore. This is not development. People’s lives don’t improve because of this. People’s lives suffer. Some make money to be sure, but its not good development for the country. It’s a cheap, quick grabbing of resources.

It’s allowed to happen because nobody is watching anymore.  Nobody is picking up the bigger picture.  Until now, in 2013, I think it will get a lot more attention by a lot more people. But it’s a few years too late.

Yang Saing Koma president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC)

If we look at technological development, there is more and more mechanisation – small and big tractors and rice threshing machines. This is because of the availability of these technologies, easy access to loans and the problem of higher labour costs in agriculture – because a lot of people migrate, go to work in the city, or in Thailand. Last year, the average labour cost was 10,000 riel per day [$2.50]. This year was around 12,000, and next year it will be 15,000.  

The cost of production is getting higher. So the farmer has to get higher yields. Next year, farmers will need to need to increase rice yields to be at least 2.5 tonnes per hectare, around 1,000 riel per kilo for average rice. Farmers should set up rice mill co-operatives to get higher prices for value added.

Farmers have to find a way to not suppress but support rice plants. They have to select very good plants to transplant and not just put plants together so they’re competing with each other. The old thinking was the more you plant the more you get. But selecting the best and giving them space saves the seeds, and we also save the labour, because there’s not as much time uprooting seedlings.

It’s just a way of thinking, but some people are afraid because they’ve never done it before.

With climate change now, it’s important how we can adapt with the calendar. In rice farming, you have to know the pattern of rainfall, and normally the pattern is still OK, but in some areas, there’s not enough rain, or the rain comes very late. So one thing to do is to grow other crops like pumpkins and watermelons. But you have to start in early November for non-rice crops. Knowing the calendar is important.

Youk Chhang executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

I predict that in 2013, there will be more students at the graduate level who produce more scholarship work in Khmer Rouge history. I can see that there is more coming out because there is a strong interest. I think because of the widespread public discussions, it’s becoming everyone’s issue; it’s no longer a political issue.

In terms of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, I think that the process frustrates the public, so the process has alienated the public. I think that it’s going to take major events at the ECCC to regain their interest and support.

On Khmer Rouge memoirs written by Cambodians, I think this one is predictable, because it’s personal. It’s very Khmer. I think that as the kids grow older, they begin to question, to search for answers. We have seen so far more and more from abroad and from the locals. One day, there will be many memoirs written by Cambodians themselves, and that will form a new view of this country.

Every year, we have a New Year’s resolution, always emphasising individual education. We hope we can reach out to more and more about Khmer Rouge history.

Chimm Sotheara director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation

I wish for a unification of the present mental health stakeholders. I think in the past, mental health professionals seem to be very disconnected, and there has been conflict between different groups. I hope that myself and other professionals will start to negotiate and work together.

Specifically, I’m talking about the field of psychiatry. There are several groups, several parties, I don’t refer to political parties, but factions, maybe two or three factions, and I think this is not good for mental health in Cambodia.

During the TPO conference on December 7, I met with four or five of psychiatrists whom I invited to come, and we discussed briefly that we should continue to meet, and we should talk, and we should do something together to improve the image of mental health in Cambodia.

What we were talking about is that we should be able to organise an ASEAN conference of psychiatry in Cambodia one day, because the ASEAN members have a rotating role in putting this together, and we haven’t been able to, because we aren’t unified. I hope to meet all the psychiatrists, maybe in the next month or so, to discuss this, so I hope that 2013 will be the year of unification.

Sao Vansey national co-ordinator at the Indigenous Community Support Organisation

We HAVE a new strategy plan for 2013 to 2015. The mission of ICSO still means supporting the community and empowering people so they can understand their rights. We’ll be continuing the land registration process and right to land and natural resources.

Registration is the big challenge in maintaining traditional and cultural identities. In particular, indigenous communities want to register the collective land titles, but it is still moving very slow and the implementation is also slow.

Now we can see the determination of the indigenous people that they start to mobilise and network for their own voices, against discrimination, so this is the way that indigenous communities themselves have to protect their traditions, culture and natural land. More than 100 communities have been recognised by the Ministry of Rural Development as indigenous communities. So I hope that next year, in 2013, more than 40 communities that are already recognised by the Ministry of Interior will be moved to submit documents for the registration of collective land titles.

I hope that the indigenous community voices will be demanding of the government to implement the registration. It depends on the advocacy to the lawmakers and the government, particularly the implementation.

Rong Chhun president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association

Politicians will be competing for votes for the first half of the year, so things for garment workers will be better in 2013 than in 2012.

Because of the upcoming election, workers will have some of their demands met. I think it will be the best year in a long time for them. I also predict there will be less fainting in factories in 2013, due to the changes that have been made by the Ministry of Labour, factories and workers in response to faintings in the past year or so.

Basically, conditions have improved and this will have an effect throughout 2013. I also think there will be less strikes overall.

As for teachers, politicians will be competing for their votes, too, and I expect they will treat teachers in much they same way they treat garment workers in the lead-up to the election. To have further demands met, teachers will have to consider carefully who they elect as their leaders.

 

Interviews compiled by Post staff, edited for clarity and lenght
 

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