Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rights effort suffering from 'opposition fatigue'

Rights effort suffering from 'opposition fatigue'

Rights effort suffering from 'opposition fatigue'

HUMAN rights workers in Cambodia say they feel increasingly pressured and isolated

as international attention moves still further away from their concerns.

Their job - teaching about rights plus recording, investigating and trying to alleviate

or stop cases of abuse - is suffering in the post-election climate, they say, because

of "opposition fatigue" from diplomats and funders.

The opposition itself may have harmed its own cause, and rights workers are cynical

at what they say is only a remission of intimidation by the CPP.

Cambodia's central human rights organization, the Cambodian Office of the UN High

Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR), has long been beset by allegations from the

CPP, some analysts and even diplomats of being "anti-CPP". CPP officials

claim that the office has deliberately sought to vilify the party in the eyes of

the world.

The charge, which has been equally long and patiently denied by UN workers and many

others, may however have moved UN chiefs to muffle the Secretary-General's Special

Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg, sources say.

Hammarberg made an early reputation for making blunt comments. He repeatedly criticized

the government for not bringing to justice those responsible for political murders

last year.

However, a single line in his fifth report Aug 18 - "It is not the role of the

Special Representative to pass any judgment in these or other [complaints]"

- signals that, according to rights workers, "Thomas [Hammarberg] has got cold


"A number of his statements have been construed by New York as political...

He's been told on a number of occasions to stick to his human rights mandate,"

one source said.

"It might be OK to say 'the level of human rights violations is not conducive

to free and fair elections', but New York says it's political to say 'if the elections

are held in this present [human rights] climate they can't be free and fair'. Whatever,

[Hammarberg] is now under pressure and doesn't want interpretive reports, he just

wants the facts... no analysis or interpretations."

The COHCHR "should be proactive," the source said. "But Hammarberg

is under pressure to implement the feeling of the international community, particularly

the Western countries [which are] less and less supportive of the office's work."

"Western governments have given up," he said., adding there was little

Hammarberg could do given that he did not now enjoy wide support either inside or

outside the government.

"He's been reduced to preaching in the desert."

Phnom Penh-based diplomats say they're "more interested in getting this political

deadlock broken, and getting the government going. This is the priority and then

we'll watch and see what happens [with human rights]," said one ambassador.

"[Human rights], especially in the media, has been over-played," he said.

"So far the government has been very careful to ensure nothing has happened...

and if that keeps going it's good."

Hammarberg had not replied to email questions about the comments made about him,

or about Cambodia's human rights situation, at Post press time.

The UN office is due to lose some of its most experienced staff over the next few

months, and the mandates of its short-term provincial monitors for the election period

expire at the end of this month.

Local human rights groups, meanwhile, are looking worriedly at their budgets. "I

get the sinking feeling that we're not popular at all," said one local rights

chief. "We've long been saying what [the international community] doesn't want

to hear.

"A lot of donors are reconsidering their commitment to human rights and democracy

[NGOs] in Cambodia at the moment... [the international community is] not interested,

that's very clear."

CPP Vice-President and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has made at least two public

statements that he would not tolerate rights abuses - one before the election and

another Aug 2.

"I appeal seriously to all CPP members to be politically mature and to be a

symbol of national reconciliation," Hun Sen reportedly said, adding that intimidation

was illegal, immoral and that perpetrators would not be given any concession.

His appeals worked. Hammarberg noted the "significant decline" in human

rights abuses following Hun Sen's statement.

Critics say the Hun Sen's words merely illustrated the fact that political intimidation

is an abuse controlled systematically, centrally and from on-high.

"Hun Sen calculated that if he could have a clean election day, and if the following

couple of months could be clean, then he could get away with all the political violence

and intimidation that went on before," one rights worker said. "He calculated


By the same logic, the CPP did not want to jeopardize the future legitimacy and recognition

of their new government, he said.

"Of course [the CPP] isn't going to do anything," the source added. "What

Hun Sen feared were people below his level acting with their own hands. This was

no coincidence."

Cynicism about the extent of human rights abuse - and questions about the agendas

being held of those publicizing and investigating the problem - have deepened in

the post-election period.

One human rights worker said that in the past three weeks or so 80% of the cases

opposition activists have brought to him have proved groundless. There was even a

suggestion that at least one made by a Rainsy activist - a rape charge - had been


Increasingly, rights workers say, political motives are being wrongly blamed for

personal disputes. Investigators routinely dismiss frivolous complaints. In one instance,

a missing cow was the central character of an allegation of a politically-based human

rights abuse.

On Aug 7 the Post published a story about "Phanna", a 17-year-old youth

from Kampong Cham who claimed to have fought at O'Smach. He said a group of soldiers

had arrived at his house and shot at a Funcinpec sign, and that he had been beaten

up by a stranger after his Funcinpec party card fell from his pocket as he fled.

He was one of hundreds who turned up at the Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy headquarters

after the election complaining of intimidation, and he was quoted in the Post as

saying "Hun Sen is a killer!".

"Phanna" was introduced to the Post by a local human rights organization.

His story had not been investigated and has since been proved as a tissue of lies

and exaggeration.

While many opposition activists have genuinely suffered abuse and are fearful for

their safety, rights lawyers say that opposition groups risk the effects of "crying

wolf" by making unsubstantiated claims which could undermine genuine cases in

the future.

Cases of abuse were not usually intentionally fabricated, one rights worker said.

But Funcinpec and SRP officers "never check the information, that's the first


"If it's a first-hand account, usually it's correct. But if it's only the person

at the end of the chain putting down the story... there's a high chance the story

is not true."

Claims by the opposition of abuse "are genuinely in good faith... but [the parties]

are not organized to verify the information themselves... they're extremely poorly


Another rights worker said: "A lot of people will probably laugh when they hear

this but local people were losing it... there was this whole stress build-up [and]

extremely high anxiety levels, to the point some people had to be medicated. But

it shows how traumatized people were."

The worker believed the CPP would think it neither timely nor a good idea to change

its strategy of suppressing rights abuses - for now.

However, another senior rights lawyer with years of experience in Cambodia said:

"[The CPP] will continue to work as they have in the past. They will identify

the most active [opposition members] and buy them off or neutralize them.

"If [opposition activists] demonstrate a tight attachment to their party, I

think the job of killing will continue."


  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Phnom Penh curfew starts today

    A two-week curfew from 8pm to 5am starts today in Phnom Penh, a day after a sub-decree detailing administrative measures to contain Covid-19 was issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Travelling in Phnom Penh is temporally banned between 8pm and 5am,” said Phnom Penh governor

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Cambodia gears up for muted New Year festival

    The recent curfew and restrictions imposed in the capital and other Covid-19 hotspots were intended to break the chain of transmission, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said as municipal and provincial authorities issued new directives banning certain activities during the upcoming Khmer New Year

  • Culture ministry: Take Tuol Sleng photos down, or else

    The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has told Irish photographer Matt Loughrey to take down the photos of Khmer Rouge victims at Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum which he allegedly colourised and altered to show them smiling. The ministry said Loughrey's work is unacceptable, affecting

  • Covid-19 vaccination now obligatory

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 11 issued a sub-decree making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for individuals unless they have a medical certificate proving they have pre-existing health conditions that prevent them from doing so. «This applies to all members of the armed forces and civil servants