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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - For NGOs, fear and loathing beneath democratic veneer

For NGOs, fear and loathing beneath democratic veneer

Bodyguards and bulletproof car seat covers, tapped phones and threats. It sounds

more like an espionage film than the lives of people who work at NGOs or local election

monitor organizations.

But some local monitors and NGO workers are targets for intimidation. And even those

who are not overtly threatened say they are spied upon. It is enough to lay a base

of menace in their work.

"When I talk to someone on the phone, I have no freedom because everything I

say is listened to and recorded," says Kek Galabru, president of human rights

group Licadho.

She adds that when people cannot talk freely and communication is stunted, "freedom

is tightened". The consequences are high stress levels, a pervading sense of

urgency, and apprehension at work. It all amounts to an effective means of intimidation

and control.

So how do they confront the problem? Galabru says the way around it is to speak in

code or limit talk to discussion of family matters. Yet even when a phone is not

in use, someone's position can still be tracked.

Another human rights worker, who did not want to be named, says that several sources

at the Ministry of Interior (MoI) told him last year that he was being taped. "Be

careful what you say," was the warning given.

He believes the MoI has a department of hundreds who are employed to listen in on

tapped conversations. It is a charge the MoI strenuously denies.

"We have no department, no bureau, no section and no people who work in surveillance,"

says spokesman General Khieu Sopheak. "We are a democratic, free country and

we do not spy on our people."

Sopheak adds that proof of that is shown by the election, in which millions of people

were free to vote. And most observers, he says, called it free and fair.

"This accusation [of surveillance] is the ill intent of people who want to blame

the government. This is the opposition party opinion," Sopheak says.

He insists that he would know if surveillance were carried out, and says the MoI

has never undertaken any spying projects.

MobiTel's general manager David Spriggs says tapping mobile phones is difficult and

costly.

"You can't do that with our GSM system. And it's too expensive." he says.

"You can't just go and tap into it. It's a very secure protocol."

He explains that to tap into the system would require a specialized piece of equipment

costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. It sits on the central switch of the system

and allows you to listen in.

Most countries' governments have the ability to eavesdrop on citizens' conversations

for security reasons. However, Spriggs insists that Cambodia has not set this up-at

least not with MobiTel's assistance.

In the last couple of years, a number of embassies have responded to the threat of

telephone surveillance by changing their security procedures. This implies at least

a suspicion of phone bugging.

It's now the trend to confiscate mobile phones from visitors before they can enter

the embassy. And some embassies require that their staff lock their mobile phones

in a cupboard when they are in the building.

At the Japanese Embassy, a security spokesman says that although handphones are allowed

inside the building, they are thoroughly examined first. He says a phone can easily

be turned into an explosive-packed weapon.

He feels that it is a good idea to ban phones from the embassy.

"It is very easy to wiretap these telephones. All it takes is the technical

know how," he says. Then ironically, he becomes nervous that someone might be

listening in on his telephone conversation with the Post and requests a one-to-one

meeting instead.

Although Sopheak repeatedly asserts that spying was not and is not underway, that

was not the finding of a 1999 report by the Asian Human Rights Commission. The document,

titled Cambodia: Consultation on Police Reforms, examined the recent history of surveillance,

and was presented at a conference attended by officials from the MoI, the Ministry

of Justice and NGOs.

"Between 1980 and 1992, surveillance was carried out from the Ministry of Interior,"

it said. "The socialist regimes, which came after the Khmer Rouge, saw the role

of the police as that of a militia. Its function was to protect the regime and to

perform surveillance on the people."

But the concept of surveillance was compelled to change after the 1993 UNTAC-sponsored

election. The MoI was meant to operate under the framework of the new Constitution.

Article 41 states that: "the rights to privacy ... and to secrecy of correspondence

by mail, telegram, fax, telex and telephone shall be guaranteed."

Clearly not everyone is convinced that their constitutional right is being honored.

Kem Sokha, the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), had three

phones when interviewed and continues to change his numbers with alacrity.

He bought his latest phone just ten days before the July 27 election because he knows

they are all tapped. He has three bodyguards and a driver to ensure his personal

safety.

"I used to have tinted windows on my car," he says. "But then Hun

Sen didn't allow tinted windows, so now I have curtains."

Other election monitors, who did not want their names used, say that their vehicles

have bulletproof car seat covers, and that they switch cars regularly. In the approach

to the 1998 general election some slept in safe houses across the capital to avoid

spies.

Although Galabru does not have bodyguards and has not been threatened directly, she

still does not feel entirely at ease. The murder of senior Funcinpec advisor Om Radsady

earlier this year, she says, was blatantly public and frighteningly unexpected.

But amid the subtle and not so subtle threats and intimidation, all expressed a strong

commitment to continue with their work. As one election monitor says: "I am

a Buddhist and I am not afraid to die."

CCHR's Kem Sokha says he has already decided "to sacrifice my life to my country

for the benefit of my people". And, says Galabru, the issue is bigger than the

individual: "If we don't push through our fear and don't try, then we cannot

change this country."

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