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The year’s top 10 stories

Death of a king

121228 01
Shootings, land disputes, political arrests, the Khmer Rouge tribunal, ASEAN and the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk are just some of the stories that made major headlines in 2012. Photograph: Phnom Penh Post

On October 15, retired King Norodom Sihanouk died of a heart attack in Beijing at age 89. The esteem many Cambodians felt for Sihanouk was quickly evident as hundreds of thousands of people massed along Phnom Penh’s streets two days later to witness the return of his body to the Royal Palace.

Known as the “King Father” since he abdicated in 2004 in favour of his son Norodom Sihamoni, Sihanouk played a multitude of roles over decades of change but remained a symbol of unity for many Cambodians.

He pushed to secure independence from France, granted in 1953, and then abdicated the throne – the first time – to become prime minister.

His decision to ally with the Khmer Rouge after being deposed in the 1970 coup has been criticised for encouraging many Cambodians to throw their support behind a force that would later prove one of the most damaging in history, responsible for the deaths of nearly two million people from 1975 to 1979, during which time Sihanouk was kept under house arrest in Phnom Penh.

After the regime fell, Sihanouk became the face of opposition forces countering the Vietnamese presence. After virtually brokering the Paris Peace Accords and an end to the conflict in 1991, Sihanouk returned to Cambodia and took the crown once again in 1993. All along, meanwhile, he struggled with mounting health problems that saw him returning ever more frequently to Beijing for treatment.

In the two months since his passing, government officials have constantly evoked Sihanouk in speeches and cancelled Phnom Penh’s Water Festival out of respect. Mourners continue to wear black ribbons, display his picture and pay respects at the Royal Palace, where his body will rest until his funeral on February 1. Following a procession around the city, the body will be taken to the crematorium currently under construction near the National Museum and cremated on February 4.

An activist slain

Environmental activist Chut Wutty (seated) speaks to villagers during a community patrol in Prey Lang forest earlier this year. Wutty was gunned down in Koh Kong province in April 2012 while investigating illegal logging. Photograph: Mathieu Young
Environmental activist Chut Wutty (seated) speaks to villagers during a community patrol in Prey Lang forest earlier this year. Wutty was gunned down in Koh Kong province in April 2012 while investigating illegal logging. Photograph: Mathieu Young

The fatal shooting of prominent anti-logging activist Chut Wutty on April 26 sent shockwaves across Cambodia and the world, bringing into stark reality a national trend of violent retribution against those who dare challenge abuses of power.

Wutty was killed after encountering military police while travelling with two journalists to photograph evidence of alleged illegal logging by the Timbergreen company in the Cardamom Mountains.

A vocal critic of military and NGO complicity in illegal logging, Wutty had faced off several times against military police in dangerously aggravated confrontations.

But it was the run-in with military police officer In Rattana, several other members of the armed forces and Timbergreen security guard Ran Boroth that proved fatal for both Wutty and Rattana.

The military’s explanations of the deaths long remained inconsistent, with one version holding that Rattana was killed when one of his own bullets ricocheted, and another stating that after killing Wutty, Rattana shot himself – with his AK-47 no less - in regret.

The official version eventually put forward by a government committee claimed Rattana shot Wutty because of a personal argument, and then Boroth accidentally shot Rattana with Rattana’s own weapon while trying to disarm him.

Rights groups and Wutty’s family called this explanation a ludicrous cover-up and criticised the investigation for not questioning key witnesses.

In early October, the Koh Kong Provincial Court dropped Rattana’s charges because he and Wutty were dead.

Later that month, the court charged Boroth with accidentally killing Rattana and gave him a suspended two-year sentence that saw him walking free less than two weeks later.

Critics blasted these decisions, which stood in stark contrast to the conviction and heavy sentence for independent radio owner Mam Sonando.

A shooting in Kratie

Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando flashes the peace sign as he is bundled into a van at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in early 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando flashes the peace sign as he is bundled into a van at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in early 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

On May 16, government forces fatally shot Heng Chantha, a 14-year old girl, while firing on families that refused to be evicted from Pro Ma village.

According to residents, Chantha was killed as hundreds of armed civilian and military police, supported by a helicopter, violently evicted 1,000 families involved in a long-running land dispute with Russian rubber firm Casotim, which the government had granted a 15,000-hectare economic land concession in the area.

However, as news of the incident ricocheted across a horrified nation, the government maintained that its forces had been quashing a secessionist plot supported by the Association of Democrats – an explanation rights groups derided.

Villagers also rejected this claim, saying they had just wanted land titles and had been unarmed.  

In the months following, Cambodian authorities used the so-called secession to crack down on several perennial thorns in its side – most notably Mam Sonando, independent Beehive Radio station owner and Association of Democrats president, who had vocally criticised the government.

Sonando was arrested on several charges including “insurrection” and “incitement of the people” and placed in pre-trial detention in Prey Sar, where the 71-year-old fell ill.

Others the government identified as “secessionists” testified against alleged leaders like Sonando in return for immunity.

On October 1, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Sonando to 20 years, prompting outcry from rights groups and international observers. Bun Ratha, a supposed leader in hiding, was given 30 years in absentia.

Despite support from such luminaries as US President Barack Obama, Sonando appears to be receiving few breaks; just last month, the court denied a bail request.

Senior Adhoc investigator Chan Soveth, meanwhile, faced questioning last month, too, in relation to aiding the “secessionists”, a charge Soveth denies. Though he was not detained, Soveth was ordered to report his movements to the court – a move that would doubtless have a serious impact on the work of a rights investigator.

Whether that is the last of it, or whether others will fall under the Kratie secession tale, remains to be seen.

The Boeung Kak 13

In a lawyer-free, three-hour trial on May 24 that made international headlines, Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted 13 women of defying authorities and illegally occupying land at the capital’s filled-in Boeung Kak lake site and sentenced them to two and a half years in prison.

The government had granted the 114-hectare site to ruling-party Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku Inc in 2007, which then proceeded to fill in the lake and evict thousands of families.

The group of women, which included 72-year-old Nget Khun and the high-profile activist Tep Vanny, were arrested during a protest on May 22 in which evictees tried to rebuild a house at Boeung Kak.

Volunteers return to Phnom Penh last week after taking part in the government’s land measurement program. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Volunteers return to Phnom Penh last week after taking part in the government’s land measurement program. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

After vigorous protests and calls for their release – including one from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – the Appeal Court set them free on June 27, but upheld their convictions, leaving many believing justice had not fully been served.

Criticism of the government’s heavy-handed approach to Boeung Kak protesters continued in September when Yorm Bopha, who had vocally pushed for the 13’s release, was herself arrested.

Bopha was held in pre-trial detention in Prey Sar prison for allegedly ordering an attack against two motorcycle drivers and alleged thieves – charges that rights groups called trumped up – until she was sentenced to three years in prison last week.

Outside the courtroom, Boeung Kak community members vigorously protested the verdict. Throughout the year they joined other evicted communities to demonstrate, sometimes employing flashy methods, such as crouching in cages and dancing Gangnam-style.

But the 12.44 hectares of Boeung Kak land Hun Sen granted residents last year has yet to be demarcated, and recruitment advertisements suggest Shukaku may soon begin building there.

Ieng Thirith freed

A diagnosis of irreversible dementia for 80-year-old former Khmer Rouge Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith saw her declared unfit to stand trial at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia and released on September 16.

Thirith’s dismissal, under conditions that she inform the court of her address, turn in her passport, report to the court when summonsed and undergo regular check-ups, increased concerns that the remaining octogenarian defendants may similarly become unfit to stand trial, or die, before Case 002 finishes.

These concerns were further fuelled by the ongoing health problems of Thirith’s husband, 87-year-old former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, who spent two months in hospital for exhaustion and dizziness.

Meanwhile, the team for Brother Number Two, 86-year-old Nuon Chea, routinely requested their client be allowed to follow the afternoon proceedings from his holding cell, saying he suffered from “a headache, backache and a lack of concentration”.

These developments added to other pressures to move the trial along, including shrinking funds and accusations of corruption and government interference. Many have raised concerns that such impediments will prevent the trials for cases 003 and 004 from ever being heard.

The PM’s land plan

With tempers reaching a fever pitch over endemic land grabbing across Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen in May announced a national land-titling scheme that would grant about 1.2 million hectares of titles to hundreds of thousands of families across the country.

The scheme followed the premier’s announcement of a moratorium on new economic land concessions and brought guarded hope that the government was finally tackling escalating forced evictions – a problem with its origins in the dislocations of the Khmer Rouge.

In June, about 2,000 youth volunteers, in addition to provincial and district officials and technical experts from the Ministry of Land Planning, Urbanisation and Construction, set to work measuring land for titling.

As of mid-December, the government had measured 388,000 hectares of land and distributed 51,681 land titles.

But although the program initially was promoted as a scheme to address land disputes between villagers and development companies granted economic land concessions, it has focused on granting titles in areas where no dispute exists.

Moreover, the moratorium on ELCs included an ambiguous clause exempting those already under consideration, and hundreds of thousands of hectares in such concessions have since been granted.

In November, the prime minister said he refused to help resolve disputes where NGOs and the opposition party had become involved, though he soon backtracked, explaining this would only be the case were such parties were acting divisively.  

Whether the scheme is little more than a ploy to curry favour amongst the electorate ahead of 2013 national elections or a genuine program to curtail a problem so rampant it has become a headache even for the government continues to be hotly debated.

A year in the chair

High hopes for Cambodia to assert itself as a regional leader upon taking the 2012 ASEAN chair were quickly dashed as the Kingdom drew flak for appearing to prize its bilateral relationship with China above the oft-invoked “ASEAN unity”.

Its first summit, in April, was a bumpy start to what would prove to be a jarring year. By the end of day one, the Philippines and Cambodia were already publicly butting heads over China’s role.

But it was at the wrap of the Foreign Ministers Meeting in July that the government received particular reproach for the unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué, thanks to discord over the long-awaited South China Sea code of conduct.

Following discussions aimed at preventing conflict in the resource-rich maritime zone – where various portions of China’s sovereignty claims are contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – countries with interests in the area, along with political analysts, accused Cambodia of siding with its major investor and donor, China.

For many, the South China Sea fallout cast doubt on the institutional strength of the 10-nation group, which aims for economic integration by 2015.

Amid the backlash, Cambodia continued to publicly hail its successes as chair, highlighting the landmark visits of a number of heads of state, including one by US President Barack Obama that marked the first-ever visit by a sitting US president.

But there was little reason to cheer. While other heads of states held press conferences and their foreign ministers had frequent public engagement, Obama made it clear he was in town solely to attend ASEAN, not to engage with Cambodia. In a bilateral meeting, at the urging of US lawmakers, rights groups and opposition leaders, he reportedly blasted Cambodia’s rights record and called for reform.

For all the turmoil, ASEAN watchers were in agreement about one thing: Cambodia’s chair proved a fascinating one to chart. Doubtless many are wondering whether Brunei can keep up when it takes over in 2013.

Svay Rieng mayhem

Allegations spread thick and fast that the gunman behind the shooting of three women at a garment protest in February was the Bavet town governor, reaching a climax when none other than Interior Minister Sar Kheng himself fingered Chhouk Bandith as the sole suspect in March.

Rights groups decried the charge of unintentional injury the court handed Bandith in May as far too light.

But even with the light charge, on December 18, after months of a stop-and-go investigation and trial postponement, Bandith walked free after the charges were dropped, having spent not a day behind bars.

As rights groups pointed out, this treatment differed markedly from that given independent radio owner and so-called secessionist Mam Sonando, who was placed in pre-trial detention for months before being sentenced to multiple years in prison.

This was despite much stronger evidence of Bandith’s guilt, observers said. Several witnesses had identified Bandith as the firer of three shots that wounded Buot Chinda, 21, Keo Near, 18, and Nuth Sakhorn, 23, at a protest of some 6,000 workers outside the Kaoway Sports factory, a Puma supplier, in Bavet’s Special Economic Zone.

In March, after Bavet town officials allegedly tried unsuccessfully to buy the shooting victims’ silence, Bandith was transferred to a different position in the Svay Rieng provincial government.

Borei Keila evictions

Villagers evicted in January 2012 from the Borei Keila community were forced to relocate to two sites outside Phnom Penh, including Phnom Bat (pictured), which lacked basic infrastructure including shelter, water and electricity. Photograph: Meng Kimlong/Phnom Penh Post
Villagers evicted in January 2012 from the Borei Keila community were forced to relocate to two sites outside Phnom Penh, including Phnom Bat (pictured), which lacked basic infrastructure including shelter, water and electricity. Photograph: Meng Kimlong/Phnom Penh Post

The year had scarcely begun when development firm Phan Imex and more than 100 government forces bulldozed the homes of hundreds of Borei Keila residents who had refused to make way for the company’s commercial development project.

The forced evictions of January 3 sparked violent clashes in which villagers, 10 of whom were arrested, threw bricks and petrol-filled bottles at authorities and police beat protesters.

Phan Imex, which had only built eight of 10 apartment buildings it had promised to provide in exchange for the villagers’ adjacent land, said it lacked the funds to honour its contract – and instead offered more than 400 families accommodation in tents on the outskirts of the city as compensation for leaving Borei Keila.

The months since have found many evictees who refused to relocate sleeping under stairs at the site of their old homes and demonstrating with activists from Boeung Kak lake and other communities.

On January 11, 30 of those demonstrators, including six children, were detained at Prey Speu Social Affairs Centre after a protest in the city against the detention of their fellow villagers arrested eight days before.

Rights groups criticised the detention as illegal and without cause, and a few days later, 22 of the detainees scaled the walls and escaped in tuk-tuks.

Meanwhile, Phan Imex, which insists it has built accommodation for residents or provided them with sufficient compensation, has accused families of trying to cheat their way into extra housing for relatives.

That was the charge brought against 64-year-old grandmother Tim Sakmony, one of the Prey Speu escapees and protest leaders.

Sakmony was put in pretrial detention in September and convicted in December but released immediately for time served, in what rights groups called a politically motivated case.

More such cases may be ahead as the Borei Keila community continues to protest with no resolution in sight.

Deportations

Even as many crimes made headlines in Cambodia for their lack of resolution, foreigners on the wrong side of the law sometimes found themselves facing an uncharacteristically hard line.

The year was marked by several deportations that received international attention, including the long-called-for expulsion of convicted pedophile Alexander Trofimov to Russia and the return of Pirate Bay file-sharing site co-founder Gottfrid Svartholm Warg to Sweden.

In perhaps the most high-profile case, following a request from China for his extradition, French architect Patrick Devillers flew to Beijing of his own free will – or so he said in a widely viewed YouTube video – in July to co-operate in the investigation into the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

While Devillers returned to Cambodia in August, the odds of returning to the Kingdom are not good for Trofimov and Warg, who were both arrested upon arrival in their home countries.

Trofimov was deported in June, six months after his 17-year sentence for sexually abusing 15 underage Cambodian girls had been suspended and then lifted by royal pardon, leaving him to spend only 4.5 years in prison.

After months in which he travelled freely throughout the Kingdom, despite being listed on Interpol for outstanding pedophilia charges in Russia, he was finally expelled. Though Cambodia appeared loath to send the wealthy benefactor to certain imprisonment (refusing to warn Russian police, and sending him without guards on a flight that had a lengthy layover in South Korea), Russian authorities received a last minute tip and were able to head him off at the Seoul airport.

While observers like NGO Action Pour Les Enfants have called for the government to ensure sexual offenders are returned to their home countries, Cambodia’s co-operation in sending Warg to Sweden in September troubled many.

By law, the Swedish national should have been able to choose his own destination after he was expelled, critics said.

This year, Cambodia also deported hundreds of members of online extortion and betting rings to Taiwan, China, Indonesia and Malaysia as well as a Japanese national wanted in his home country for a multimillion-dollar armed robbery.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justine Drennan at justine.drennan@phnompenhpost.com

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