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Kirby: Good news and "troubling" news

D ESPITE threats of more National Assembly expulsions, the passing of the press

law and prosecutions of journalists and political campaigners, the UN's top

Cambodian human rights observer is loathe to identify a trend.

"I think

it's better to concentrate on the facts rather than give general impressions,"

Michael Kirby, the UN Secretary-General's Representative on Human Rights in

Cambodia, said Aug 15.

Kirby several times declined to offer an opinion

on whether recent events indicated Cambodia was growing more

undemocratic.

When pressed, he said: "If you're asking for an impression,

I can tell you.

"My impression when I arrive here is that Phnom Penh is a

cleaner place, it's had lots of coats of paint, the buildings are being

renovated, there are lots more commercial enterprises and businesses, and the

public areas have been tidied up and one can get a sense that there is in Phnom

Penh a much more vigorous economy at work.

"It will be important to

spread that development to the other towns and rural areas."

Kirby, who

also visited Kep, Kampot and Kompong Cham on his visit, said building an

economic infrastructure was a crucial ingredient in securing human

rights.

Speaking at a press conference at the end of his sixth visit to

Cambodia, Kirby said he had heard both good news and "some troubling news" on

his trip.

On the positive side, there was Phnom Penh's economic upturn,

the "wonderful" work done by NGOs and UN agencies, and the fact that the press

continued to flourish in Cambodia.

Though there were some concerns about

the new press law, "I'm glad to say that during this year no journalist has been

killed and, although some journalists have been and are to be before the courts,

no journalist is in prison at this moment that I am in Cambodia.

"So when

one looks at this whole picture, there is much from which one can derive

satisfaction... Against a background of historical difficulty which is almost

unparalleled in the world, Cambodia is making important achievements, including

in the area of human rights."

On the other hand, Kirby acknowledged

concerns about a number of issues, including: Sam Rainsy's expulsion as an MP;

attempts to expel BLDP MPs; judicial independence; the arrests of six men for

releasing balloons with political messages tied to them; and the apparent

freedom of military and government officials to commit crimes with

impunity.

He would not answer questions about the BLDP MPs, saying: "I

don't want to say anything which in the slightest way will disturb what I hope

will be discussions which will ensure that the National Assembly continues to

function... in a condition of a multi-party democracy."

Kirby also

declined to answer questions about the "balloon six" arrested for distributing

political leaflets, except to say their actions appeared to be protected by

their constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Kirby acknowledged

he had sought - but been declined - meetings with the co-Prime Ministers during

his 12-day visit. Second PM Hun Sen had been in Singapore, he said, while First

PM Prince Norodom Ranariddh had been busy with other commitments.

Asked

if he was disappointed, he said: "I'm always disappointed when I don't see the

two Prime Ministers or either one of them because I have to say that seeing the

First Prime Minister is always a very interesting and exciting experience and

seeing the Second Prime Minister is always a very good insight into the problems

of this country."

He added that Hun Sen had at previous meetings with him

made perceptive comments about Cambodia's difficulties.

But Kirby

disputed he had been given the "cold shoulder by Cambodia" on his latest visit,

saying he had met with Foreign Minister Ung Huot, Justice Minister Chem Snguon,

Interior Minister Sar Kheng, National Assembly chairman Chea Sim and King

Norodom Sihanouk.

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