DIFFERENCES OF OPINION SHOULD NOT BE DEALT WITH THROUGH THREATS ...
CAMBODIA celebrated International Human Rights Day on Thursday amid a stark warning from the United Nations’ top rights official in the Kingdom that land disputes and a crackdown on dissent represented “worrying trends” in the development of the country.
Christophe Peschoux, head of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, said there had been some improvement in human rights, but urged the government to behave in a “tolerant manner” towards the issue.
“We have also observed some worrying trends in recent years,” he said in his speech at a rally of thousands of people to mark human rights day.
He mentioned people being forcibly evicted from their property in Phnom Penh as well as ethnic minorities who have been “robbed” of their land in northeastern areas of the country.
“As land has become a new source of wealth, [ethnic minorities] are being dispossessed of their lands,” Peschoux said.
“And day after day, villagers are robbed of their land by powerful economic interests, often with the support of the authorities,” he added.
Peschoux’s speech also criticised recent crackdowns on government critics who have been sentenced to jail or fined for their comments.
“In a tolerant political environment, differences of opinion should not be dealt with through threats, intimidation or criminal action, but through public debate,” Peschoux said.
Other rights advocates reminded the audience that the trafficking of women and children and discrimination against the disabled remain significant violations of human rights, and opposition politicians – conspicuously absent from the event – still “issued a statement to congratulate and support” the activities.
Government spokesman Tith Sothea, however, accused activists of manipulating the holiday to promote their own interests.
“They said respect for human rights in Cambodia was narrower than before. We do not accept this. What they said is not true. It’s just a way for them to benefit their groups,” he said by phone.
Elsewhere in the country, a network of grassroots rights groups calling itself the Friends of December 10 held nearly 70 events in 17 provinces and, despite fears that authorities would prevent celebrations, reported that most of the activities took place without incident.
In Kampong Chhnang, members of the Cambodian rights group Licadho visited prisoners, including Sor Song, a 50-year-old arrested in November 2007 while protesting over a land dispute with a private company and sentenced to 10 years on charges of attempted homicide and infringement on private property.
“About 11 visitors, including three family members, met imprisoned human rights defender Sor Song in Kampong Chhnang prison,” said Licadho Director Naly Pilorge, adding that visitors were allowed into the prison’s cells and made speeches to about 300 prisoners.
“The family and other visitors then spoke to Sor Song for about 90 minutes. The environment was relaxed and friendly,” Pilorge said.
“Sor Song seemed happy to be visited by so many people. A couple of the visitors cried at seeing so many young detainees,” she added.
In other areas, however, recent disputes with the government cast a pall over the rights day celebrations.
In Siem Reap’s Chi Kraeng commune, where a dispute over land has erupted in violence on several occasions, resulting in the arrests of several people, some 1,000 people were expected to attend a rights day event.
But only 100 showed up, according to participants, who said that those who did appear at a planned march and speech were mostly women, and that the men refused to attend for fear of arrest.
“Ever since I saw police open fire on the villagers at the rice field, I am very scared whenever I see them,” said Phneat village resident Muth Na, referring to an incident on March 22 when 100 policemen opened fire on villagers harvesting rice on disputed land, seriously wounding four people.
Monk Loun Sovath, who organised the celebration, said that the day’s activities went ahead only after a fierce argument with district authorities.
Three homemade parade floats that would have carried many of the participants in the march were abandoned the night before when the truck drivers hired to pull them bowed out the night before. “They told us that they did not dare to drive us,” he said, adding that “we understand their situation.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP