AT least 15 people each month are killed in shoot-outs between government forces
and bandits in the rubber plantations of Kompong Cham, according to provincial military
commander Mao Phirin.
"The plantations are very dangerous places," he said as he addressed a
human rights conference held in the provincial capital August 7 to 9. "Demobilized
soldiers form bandit gangs who come to steal from the plantations. These people are
heavily armed and do not respect human rights - they can only be stopped by military
Mao Phirin's comments neatly defined the tension between two distinct groups attending
the three day meeting - one, consisting of human rights workers advocating due process
and the rule of law, another made up of unconvinced local officials who saw human
rights as an attempt by western culture to protect the guilty.
"Khmer culture is not traditionally violent," said Kompong Cham governor,
Hun Neng. "But during the Pol Pot regime many people were killed or lost their
freedom and now [Pol Pot's] cruel ideas remain. But there is no outrage from the
west who [continue to] support these criminals. The State of Cambodia sentenced Pol
Pot to death - why is this judgment still not recognized by the West?
"Yes, we all have rights, but we also have responsibilities. It is sad to see
property owners killed by robbers and then see that the robbers remain alive."
Much of the audience responded with enthusiastic applause. The governor left the
meeting in a shining black Mercedes 320i and was soon replaced at the lectern by
provincial prosecutor Hang Ro Raken.
"The human rights people say don't shackle prisoners," he said. "The
human rights people say to shackle prisoners is against the law, but if we don't
shackle them they will run away. I don't know what to say - what do the human rights
people have to say?
"Ninety per cent of prisoners that come to court say they confessed only after
they were beaten by police. This is not true. Sometimes it is true, but if prisoners
are not beaten, how will we get confessions?"
A group of officials, puffing heartily on 555 cigarettes whispered and giggled as
a UN representative patiently explained that there were methods of interrogation
which didn't involve beatings and torture. In any case, he said, the job of police
was to speak to witnesses and gather evidence to present to the court. The next speaker
"Only eighty per cent of prisoners are beaten, but what is the option? Under
the law we can only detain people for 48 hours and we lack the expertise to investigate
for evidence. If we apply Western standards all the crimes will go unpunished."
The line was met with a level of understanding from the human rights workers present.
They conceded that low salaries and poor training contribute to the poor record of
human rights in Kampong Cham province. But, said one, ignorance and a lack of motivation
are compounded by a culture of violence which dominates everyday life.
"In Kompong Cham there is very little Khmer Rouge activity, which explains a
lot of the human rights abuses in places like Battambang. Here it is simply the politics
of fear, people with absolute power abusing that power for personal gain.
"The fear of authority is very intense, if there are people in uniforms around,
people just will not speak. I have seen soldiers walk into a restaurant and everybody
else has got up and left. People are totally intimidated.
"There is no freedom of expression here, people are very much under control
of the war lords. There is no centralized command, those who enjoy power in the districts
are very much a law unto themselves."
Of particular concern to human rights groups is the behavior of militia units in
Kompong Cham's rubber plantations where rape, murder and intimidation are widespread.
Unresolved incidents since the beginning of this year include:
- The death in custody on January 11 in Kroch Chmar district of 42 year old Liv
Peng An. Peng An had been arrested on suspicion of murder but was later found hanging
by the neck in his cell. Authorities attributed his death to suicide but investigators
said his body showed signs of serious torture.
- The rape and subsequent death of 14 year old Sim Sopheap at the Chup rubber plantation
on January 20. Sopheap and another girl had gone to the plantation to gather firewood
but were challenged by a militia guard who accused them of stealing. One of the girls
managed to escape but Sopheap was caught, raped and then shot in the legs. She later
died from her injuries.
- On March 20, Him Marn, a director of Bung Ket rubber plantation threatened to
shoot 75 families living on the plantation if they did not agree to support the destruction
of their homes. According to investigators the families had lived there since 1979,
but the land had recently been sold to a private company.
- On May 4, investigators allege that Military Police Commander Hun Nalin and five
subordinates illegally arrested and tortured two men who were accused of "threatening
security" in Kompong Siem district.
Human rights investigators are unanimous that, in the past, provincial and district
authorities had all but ignored their requests for official action over specific
rights abuses. But about three months ago, and in a bid to dissipate the high level
of mutual suspicion between officials and human rights workers, the local NGO Licadho
began to lobby provincial governor Hun Neng to give his blessing to a human rights
The Licadho negotiator did a good job and agreed her Khmer nationality was a distinct
advantage in gaining access to the governor. The resident UN human rights representative
had waited six months for his first interview with Hun Neng, despite repeated requests.
As a result of Licadho's efforts, Hun Neng not only agreed to participate, but promised
to provide transport and accommodation for 100 police, soldiers and officials from
throughout the province.
"This is a real breakthrough," said Licadho President, Dr Pung Chhiv Kek
Galabru, congratulating the governor for his cooperation." This is the first
time, to my knowledge, that a conference of this type has been held anywhere in provincial
"If we can organize funding from interested donors, Licadho will definitely
organize similar conferences in other provinces."
Other participants agreed the conference was a success, albeit a qualified one.
"The fact that the conference happened at all is very encouraging, even though
specific cases remain unresolved, " said one Western observer.
"But then again, what do you expect? Sure, the dialogue seemed a bit peripheral
at times, but these guys are Khmers and Khmer culture doesn't allow for straight
talking and confrontation. Everybody must be allowed to save face."
In closing the conference, Hun Neng encouraged his officials to apply the principles
of their discussions.
"We need to make prosperity and that means public order... we need to respect
the international treaty [on human rights], state laws and people's dignity. Therefore,
I urge local authorities to respect human rights.
"Authorities should try to provide safety and security to the people. But,"
he said, "the authorities must also be careful of people who use human rights
to promote their own political agenda or as a pretext for causing social unrest."