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TOP 10 stories of the year

Cambodia, 2014
For Cambodia, 2014 was bookended by tragedy. In between, there were political compromises, dubious international deals and long-awaited justice.

TOP 10 stories of the year

A year that began with a bloody crackdown on Cambodian garment workers and ended with the horrific tragedy of a mass HIV outbreak was nothing if not dramatic. In the Cambodia of 2014, controversial deals were cut, historic sentences were handed down and old problems flared anew. On a happy note, a beloved festival returned. As we prepare for 2015, we remember the most important stories of the year below.

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Deadly crackdown
As 2014 began, an ongoing nationwide strike saw throngs of garment workers loudly protesting in favour of a $160 minimum wage that a Ministry of Labour decision had denied them. Joining forces with ongoing opposition protests, the labour movement put thousands onto the streets amid an increasing sense of momentum. Three days of violence assured it would be short-lived.

On January 2, authorities from the Special Forces Airborne 911 Unit, guarding Yakjin garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district, beat and arrested 15 people, including five monks, who were later released. Violence continued that day, when police attacked protesters at Canadia Industrial Park.

After a night of unrest near the park on Veng Sreng Boulevard, with protesters throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at authorities, armed soldiers responded with deadly force.

Soldiers fired automatic weapons into crowds of demonstrators on the morning of January 3, killing at least five and wounding dozens. The body of one wounded man now presumed dead has never been found.

A day later, with the strike collapsing, the government issued orders preventing public demonstrations and forcibly evicted opposition supporters from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, where the CNRP had set up camp to protest the 2013 election results.

Presidents of eight labour unions continue to face charges of incitement and other crimes related to the strike.

HIV nightmare
AS THE year draws to a close, a community in Battambang lies devastated by an HIV outbreak that has infected some 200 people, from small babies to elderly Buddhist monks.

Alarm bells began ringing in late November when a 74-year-old man tested positive for the virus in Roka village, in Sangke district’s Roka commune.

In the days that followed, more than 100 people also returned positive tests, a figure that continues to grow. At least 30 of them – the first man included – reported having received injections from an unlicensed village “doctor”, Yem Chroeum. In one case, 15 out of 16 members of one family – regular patients of Chroeum’s – were found to have been infected.

Amid death threats from villagers, Chroeum was taken into police custody, where he allegedly confessed to police that he had reused needles while treating villagers and instructed a family member to burn evidence.

It soon emerged that Chroeum had received training as a nurse – including by the UN – in a refugee camp at the Thai border before peace was brokered in Cambodia.

The outbreak has shed light on the prevalence of injection-based medical treatment across the Kingdom, though some experts have questioned whether it is possible that one doctor could have infected so many people.

As medical experts continue to investigate, the year ends with a once-respected village practitioner sitting in prison, and a community facing its toughest trial – dealing with the grim reality that hundreds of people are infected with HIV.

Cambodian migrant workers cram into trucks in Poipet after fleeing across the border to escape the Thai junta
Cambodian migrant workers cram into trucks in Poipet after fleeing across the border to escape the Thai junta in June. Vireak Mai

Border run
What evolved into one of the largest mass movements of people in Southeast Asia began with just a trickle of Cambodian workers returning home in the face of Thailand’s increasingly hostile rhetoric towards migrants.

Over just a matter of days following Thailand’s May 22 military coup, the handful of initial returns progressed into a panicked deluge. Hundreds of returning workers turned into hundreds of thousands of mostly undocumented Cambodian migrants and their families cramming into the dusty frontier town just over the Poipet International Checkpoint.

By June 20, the number of Cambodians who had fled, or been arrested and deported from Thailand in the previous two weeks totalled an unprecedented 225,000.

While Thai police and military officials deported Cambodians in caged government trucks, the new junta adamantly denied it had done anything to instigate the exodus.

But the migrants, some forcefully expelled and many returning of their own accord, all reported a crackdown, with coordinated police raids on migrant work sites and residences.

More and more Cambodian workers were uprooted as a powerful rumour mill spread tales of Cambodians being shot at, some killed.

Faced with limited job opportunities at home, indebtedness to brokers and Thai employers calling them back, the vast majority of the workers returned to Thailand soon after the junta promised to provide a route to legalise the workers’ immigration status.

From July to November, Thailand registered almost 682,000 Cambodian workers, and initiated a still ongoing process to verify their nationality with the help of Cambodian authorities.

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A deadlock ended
The signing of a political settlement between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on July 22 ended a year of political deadlock and paved the way for the CNRP to take its seats in parliament, which had been vacant since the disputed election and swearing-in last year.

A resolution was hastened, analysts said, by the roundup of CNRP leaders following a violent protest at Freedom Park several days earlier, where notorious district security guards were badly beaten by opposition supporters.

Several opposition lawmakers-elect who had been arrested over the violence were swiftly released just hours after the deal. Reports of secret negotiations between the two parties first arose in January following the violent breakup of garment worker strikes and the opposition protest camp in Phnom Penh.

As part of the settlement, the CPP agreed to amend the constitution and election laws, and reform the National Election Committee – concessions whose details have yet to be fully ironed out.

On August 5, the 55 elected opposition MPs took their oaths before King Norodom Sihamoni. In late November, amid increasing rancour over the promised NEC reforms, the CNRP was granted a licence to operate an analogue TV channel. CNRP president Sam Rainsy was then elevated to minority leader status – a parliamentary rank equivalent to prime minister.

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Give us your tired ...
A highly controversial accord between Australia and Cambodia to relocate refugees from the tiny pacific island of Nauru, where more than 1,000 refugees are being processed in off-shore detention, was signed on September 26.

Despite an awkward ceremony where glasses of champagne were spilled and journalists’ questions ignored, the refugee resettlement deal came into force after months of secret negotiations between the two countries that began during an official visit to Phnom Penh by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on February 22.

Immediately following the signing, news spread from Nauru that several of the refugees and asylum seekers, the majority of whom have fled wars and political oppression in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, had attempted suicide.

Images of refugees with their mouths sewn shut stood in stark contrast to the Australian government’s official line: that the “stop the boats” policy was intended to protect refugees from drowning at sea as they attempted to reach Australia’s shores.

Early pledges to lay the groundwork for the deal – such as expanding Cambodia’s Immigration Department – have not been matched with actions since the signing. Despite indicating that a pilot of the scheme might begin as early as December, there have been no indications that the refugees will be moving to the Kingdom anytime soon.

The handling of 13 Montagnards, who were hiding in Ratanakkiri province until last week after reportedly fleeing religious persecution in neighbouring Vietnam, and their claims to asylum will prove a crucial test for the government’s commitment to the Refugee Convention.

A school official searches a high school student during senior exams
A school official searches a high school student during senior exams this year. Pha Lina

Failing grades
The Ministry of Education set out to banish rampant cheating, bribing and reliance on crib sheets in the national grade 12 exam this year.

While declared successful in its anti-graft objectives, the crusade against the long-practised cheating tradition also resulted in an abysmal passing rate so low that Prime Minister Hun Sen stepped in and called for a retest.

With no crutch and admittedly little preparation, three-quarters of the national exam test-takers failed the first round in August. Of the almost 90,000 exam writers, just 11 secured an A.

By way of comparison, roughly 87 per cent of students had passed the diploma-securing exam in 2013.

Granted a reprieve by the premier, the students hit their studies again with six weeks to refresh themselves on their 12-year educational program. The government sponsored cram courses in the subjects in which students fared the worst: math, chemistry and biology.

But the results of the second go were also less than impressive.

In October’s retest, just under 18 per cent managed to nab a passing score. More than 7,000 students who were anticipated to take a second shot on the test failed to show up on exam day.

Despite the large failure rate this year, few grade 12 students opted to repeat their grade, choosing instead to forgo a secondary school diploma and jump into two-year associates degrees if they could afford it.

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The verdict
On AUGUST 7, the Khmer Rouge tribunal marked its most significant achievement yet when it found former regime ideologue Nuon Chea and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan guilty of crimes against humanity, handing each a sentence of life in prison.

Though notorious S-21 prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was found guilty in 2010, the August sentence against Chea and Samphan in Case 002/01 represented the first time that the court issued a judgment against the regime’s senior-most surviving leaders, a key component of its stated aim from the outset.

Even though the court acknowledged that Samphan exercised little real power under the regime, both he and Chea were convicted for their roles in a joint criminal enterprise that formulated and implemented policies of forced evacuation, eradication of officials from the deposed Lon Nol regime and “other inhumane acts”.

Prosecutors, foreign embassies, victims and observers applauded the verdict, with long-time tribunal monitor Heather Ryan calling it “a very important day for the court and for Cambodia”.

Defence teams and the defendants themselves, however, have challenged the verdict on a number of grounds, together citing more than 350 alleged errors in their appeal briefs. As that appeal process unfolds, the court will also be launching into evidentiary hearings in the second segment of the trial against Chea and Samphan – Case 002/02 – in the coming weeks.

One of the 23 people detained, Vorn Pov
One of the 23 people detained, Vorn Pov, is led through the Municipal Court by prison guards in May. Pha Lina

The 23
After state security forces fired their fatal shots at protesting garment workers on January 3 in Phnom Penh, outrage swept through the Kingdom’s human rights movement.

As calls to prosecute the shooters intensified – to date, no one has been arrested for the killings – it was instead 23 rights workers and activists who felt the full force of the law.

The group, arrested on January 2 and 3, were taken to a nearby military base and allegedly beaten, before 21 of them were held for months at the Correctional Centre 3 prison in Kampong Cham.

Like the high-profile trials of “the Boeung Kak 13” and activist Yorm Bopha before it, the trial of “the 23” in May was derided as politically motivated and notable for its absence of hard evidence.

In court, many of the 23 said they had attended the protests – in which civilians threw petrol bombs at police – merely as observers.

They also claimed that police beat statements out of them. Before the trial ended, the judge introduced his own evidence and a prosecutor filed new charges. The 23 were found guilty of their crimes on May 30, before being given suspended prison sentences and walking free, repeating a strategy that has now been employed in numerous similar cases involving protesters.

Later on, in October, many spoke of being broke and unemployed, their convictions having effectively shut them out of the garment industry.

The following month, 11 land-rights activists were imprisoned in similar circumstances, ensuring that allegations of political interference will plague the justice system into 2015.

Balloons are released during the return of the Water Festival
Balloons are released during the return of the Water Festival in November. Heng Chivoan

A festival reborn
The Water Festival came back to Phnom Penh in November, and if Cambodia had a “feel-good” story of 2014, this was it.

After three years without the longboat races on the Tonle Sap, the gamblers perched on the riverbank and the crowds in the city, Phnom Penh emerged from the shadow of the 2010 festival, when a stampede on a bridge killed 353 people, to resurrect a cherished event.

The previous cancellations were attributed to flooding and the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, but many believed that the poor handling of the disaster’s aftermath in 2010 was the real cause behind holding off for so long.

The streets were not as packed at this year’s three-day festival compared to crowds past, a sign of lingering fears from 2010, and there weren’t as many boats, which gave the event a subdued air. But the three days of racing and merriment went off without a hitch.

Pao Sao, 48, told the Post at the time that she was “very happy” to make the trip from her home in Prey Veng.

“I have really missed Water Festival, and I’m so glad I came here,” she said, expressing a common sentiment.

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The race card
Roiling anti-Vietnamese sentiment, long a fixture of the Cambodian landscape, reared its head with seemingly new strength as the New Year dawned, with a series of incidents throughout 2014 ensuring it never strayed too far from the public eye.

Amid the carnage of Veng Sreng in January, a Vietnamese coffee shop owner picked through the rubble of his shop, seemingly targeted by angry rioters. A month later, an ethnic Vietnamese man was savagely beaten to death by a mob amid cries of “youn”, a term believed derogatory by some but consistently featured in stump speeches by the opposition party.

In June, CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha seemingly doubled down on the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, drawing condemnation from multiple quarters when he publicly stated that the death of 353 Cambodians at the 2010 Water Festival had in fact been an incident “created” by Vietnam. Just two months later, Cambodia began a census that, while not publicly aimed at the nation’s Vietnamese population, saw an overwhelming percentage of deportees hail from that group.

As the year drew to a close, the Vietnamese government itself was in the firing line. After an embassy spokesman declared that the area of southern Vietnam known as Kampuchea Krom had long been a Vietnamese possession, a series of protests that stretched over weeks saw monks with ties to the region burn Vietnamese flags outside the embassy gates.

The spokesman was removed, but as we head into 2015, the row – and ongoing tensions – remain at a low boil.