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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The trouble with human rights...

The trouble with human rights...

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

means."

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

seemed unconvinced.

"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

conference.

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

Cambodia.

"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."

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