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Ou Virak to open research hub

Former chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Ou Virak
Former chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Ou Virak, talks to the media near Phnom Penh court in 2012. Vireak Mai

Ou Virak to open research hub

Human rights activist Ou Virak is opening an independent public policy research hub after vacating his position as chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Virak, known for his frank commentary on social and political issues, has created the Future Forum as a way of bringing together “credible” researchers and promoting better public policy to lawmakers, he said yesterday.

“There’s a need for principled policy,” he said. “I think that’s where I fit in.”

Virak said those working at the not-for-profit hub, which is beginning life in a temporary location in Phnom Penh, would “report to no one” and focus on quality research based on conventional scientific methods.

“[Cambodia] gets a lot of people making a lot of claims,” he said. “So the right approach is . . . very important.”

Armed with research and policy proposals, Virak plans to approach politicians with advice for reform, he said.

“I intend to work with all of them,” he said of the country’s political parties. “That’s always been my approach. No one is my enemy.”

Many things – ranging from his time in a Thai refugee camp to his education at a Western university – have shaped his views, Virak said.

In his new role, he hopes his “crazy” optimism can help him contribute to a Cambodia that focuses more on its future.

Virak himself intends to take on projects such as developing public opinion polls to ensure the venture sustains itself.

“I’m trying to find a business model that is sustainable,” he said. “I want to practise what I preach – and that’s that Cambodia should be looking at ways of standing on its own two feet. We’ll welcome funding, but it would be limited.”

Virak said he already has a number of people interested in the “co-working” hub.

“We’ll bring in a number of real researchers who might not be” well known in the media, he said.

Those involved in the project – which will use the slogan “Public. Policy. Forward.” – will work individually or collaboratively. Mentoring of younger talents will also be encouraged.

Independent researchers and consultants will sit at the hub for a “small fee”, he added.

Virak spent almost a decade at CCHR, including serving as president for several years, after moving back to Cambodia from the US.

He becomes the latest in a growing list of high-profile analysts and civil society figures to take up a new challenge in recent months.

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) deputy president Kem Sokha last month appointed outspoken political analyst Lao Mong Hay as an adviser, while analyst Kem Ley has become
more politically active through his “Khmer for Khmer” social movement, which aims to establish political parties at the grassroots level as alternatives to the Cambodian People’s Party and the CNRP.
For now at least, Virak has no intentions of entering party politics and intends only to focus on the quality of research coming out of the Future Forum, he said.

“I’m very excited about this right now,” he said.

Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said yesterday that politicians are relying more on locally produced independent research as the quality of it improves.

The number of Cambodians being educated abroad and returning to the country was one of the reasons for an increase in good local research, she added.

The CNRP’s promises ahead of the 2013 election – which included firm figures on minimum wages and welfare – were devised based on solid, independent research from outside the party, Sochua said.

“They were not just figures that we threw out there,” she said.

The CNRP’s “seven-point policies” are regarded as a major factor in it making huge gains at the polls.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan could not be reached for comment.

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