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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ou Virak: speaking out

Ou Virak: speaking out

Born in Battambang province in 1976, Ou Virak never knew his father. A teacher

who joined the Lon Nol forces, Virak's dad was summoned to the capital in 1975,

and never heard from again.

Virak and his four older brothers were raised

in Khmer Rouge work farms, and later, Thai refugee camps by an inspirational

single mother. The entire family made it to the US in 1989, and ended up in the

hard-scrabble, overheated city of Fresno, California. If Virak hadn't developed

his fearless attitude by then, he may have found it there. He sold used cars in

San Jose while earning a postgraduate degree in economics, and devoured any

information he could find about politics in Cambodia. He returned to the Kingdom

in 2004 as a finance lecturer, but admits he really came back "to join the

movement." Virak said his best quality is "being too creative for my own good,"

and cites Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mahatma Ghandi as models for justice

and social change. He joined the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in 2005, and

recently became the group's president after his predecessor, Kem Sokha, launched

a political party. Virak is also president of the 28-NGO coalition known as the

Alliance for Freedom of Expression.

"I'm doing something incredible, that

I enjoy, and that I'm passionate about. I like to take it to the street, take it

to the people and take it to lots of people-the masses," he told the Post.

Characteristically, his opening salvo as CCHR leader was stricking.

Ahead of International Freedom of the Press Day on May 3, the CCHR issued a

statement demanding the government immediately "abolish" its Ministry of

Information. In the release Virak called the ministry "an obstacle to freedom of

the press" and charged that it was a communist relic typical of "totalitarian

and authoritarian regimes."

Virak spoke to Charles McDermid on May

2.

Why did you get into human rights work, and why launch your

leadership with such a bold statement?
This is not the first big move or

"bold move" that I've initiated. I always want to bring it. I like to be right

out there, and be loud, and stick to my principles. When I came back I looked at

the rights organizations that were nonviolent and noticed they were also

nonactive: I wasn't seeing any change. I want to change that culture and show a

more participatory approach. Activists need to be more active, nonviolence alone

won't change anything.

What was your ultimate goal: Do you really

expect the government to abolish the Ministry of Information, or was this a

publicity stunt?

To me, first you have to say the right thing, and then

do the right thing. Before we made the statement we asked the question of

whether it would be a benefit or not, and whether it would influence the

government or not. We need to get people talking. We need people to ask if we

really need such a ministry, one that is used to hinder democracy and control

the media. It's been an obstacle to free speech. [The Ministry] sounds as if it

promotes cultural information, but it's just putting the government's propaganda

out there while everyone else gets cheated.

Is your statement a

personal criticism of Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith?

No. I

think he's done his job-which is to be the mouthpiece of the ruling party. My

demand is that the whole structure of how the government provides information be

changed completely. As I said, you will find few such ministries controlling

information in true democracies.

Does freedom of the press exist in

Cambodia?

It's difficult to say, but it's not too free. Take Cambodian

TV: it's not free. You cannot rely on TV for anything but entertainment. Sure,

the stations show politicians and excellencies doing some good deeds in the

provinces-the MoI makes sure it does that-but that's all. Radio is not free or

independent. We know because we try to buy air time and they always say "let me

check with the Ministry." The ruling party has a tight grip on the radio. The

few brave souls who dare to sell us air time are arrested or threatened with

having their license revoked. Cambodian newspapers are not essential: there are

lawsuits and defamation charges flying all over the place. They're not free,

they face intimidation and are under the government's control.

Does

the CPP have an image problem?

The ruling party is not able to compete in

a free and fair way. They use unfair tactics to win elections and support. We

now challenge them to allow freedom of expression and allow the media to be free

of the policy of repeating past deeds to keep people afraid.

Will Sam

Rainsy ever be prime minister of Cambodia?

Well, there's always the

possibility that lightening will strike my office, too. It depends on how

inclusive he can be. There are other issues that are outside of his control,

especially regarding the CPP - will they stay united or will we see the cracks?

But looking ahead to 2008, I would say no.

What are your goals for

the CCHR?

I'm an economist. I'm trying to be as efficient and effective

as possible. I'd like to build a lean and mean organization that's willing to

point out the truth about human rights.

What's your take on the

situation of Khmer Krom?

They're in a tough dilemma - being Vietnamese

citizens so when they come Cambodia does not accept them. From a human rights

perspective, their rights have been violated and they still face suppression.

They try to have their own culture. The international community should take a

look a what's happening in South Vietnam. They're an indigenous people and their

have been many declarations on the subject. For the Cambodian government it's

too hot to touch.

What's the biggest problem facing Cambodia

today?

Land seems to be, but it's not. The big issue is that there is no

rule of law. Powerful people have total impunity and total disregard for the

court system.

What do you see for the future?

Everything is

going to change. It's the Buddhist law of impermanence. Lots of things will

change for Cambodia's young generation. I look at them and I see hope and

independence.

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