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Top ten stories of the year

Thousands of Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters greet opposition leader Sam Rainsy at the Phnom Penh Airport
Thousands of Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters greet opposition leader Sam Rainsy at the Phnom Penh Airport in July after he returned to Cambodia from self-imposed exile. Vireak Mai

Top ten stories of the year

Forces of nature, both real and political, dominated a year that saw an election challenged, citizens gunned down by police, thousands displaced by flooding and a (partial) victory at the ICJ.

The election
From the pre-election pardon that enabled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to the country, to the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s daily protests that are rounding out the year, the national election has been, without doubt, the biggest – and most-enduring – story of 2013.

When the year began, few predicted July 28’s ballot to be anything but another landslide victory for the powerful Cambodian People’s Party, which had held 90 of 123 seats in the National Assembly since 2008.

But after weathering a storm of S-21 denial accusations against deputy leader Kem Sokha, attracting an army of youth supporters, promising higher wages and welcoming back Rainsy to Cambodia just nine days before the poll, the CNRP proved an energised and serious force.

Rainsy’s return from years in exile attracted an estimated 100,000 people to the streets at a time when Prime Minister Hun Sen was warning of “civil war” if his party was not re-elected.

Election Day was marked by widespread complaints of irregularities, its aftermath by a riot in the capital and an increased military presence on the streets as the CPP claimed victory, 68 seats to 55.

Rainsy, who had been denied candidacy, and his party refused to accept defeat, claiming they had won the election and demanding an independent investigation with UN involvement.

With the government refusing such demands, the CNRP took its grievances to the street in a series of mass demonstrations, one of which was met with deadly force.

At various times, the government has been accused of not having a strategy to win back the support it has lost, while the CNRP has come under fire for its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric.

An improvised explosive device was discovered then safely detonated outside the National Assembly in September, just 10 days before the CNRP boycotted its opening.

The boycott led to the assembly approving a $3.5 billion national budget without opposition lawmakers and allowed the CNRP to focus on protests in Freedom Park, which in the final weeks of 2013 have become a daily occurrence.

As a story, the election has constantly regenerated itself throughout the year. And as Cambodia moves into 2014, it seems it is one that is far from over.

Extensive flooding in Battambang’s Sangke districted forces a woman to take refuge on the roof of her house in October
Extensive flooding in Battambang’s Sangke districted forces a woman to take refuge on the roof of her house in October. Vireak Mai

Deadly deluge
As the waters rose this year, the stories poured in from around the Kingdom: the Prey Veng farmer, buried in debt and desperately trying to save some small part of his crop; the mass evacuation of prisoners from a submerged provincial prison in Banteay Meanchey; the village in Battambang intentionally sacrificed by the decision to open a dam; and everywhere, death.

With the waters still subsiding nationally, the most recent available government figures show a grisly butcher’s bill in the wake of the worst flooding in more than two years: 168 dead, more than 100,000 hectares of rice crops destroyed and thousands forced to evacuate their homes.

After initial flooding hit 10 provinces in late September, it continued to spread, ultimately affecting 20 of the nation’s 23 provinces and directly affecting nearly two million citizens.

Among the evacuees, the need for basic necessities and the ever-present threat of disease saw international NGOs and the government scramble to provide aid, sometimes amid outcry from those who saw political motivations in its distribution.

With millions of dollars in aid committed but yet to be distributed, the recovery process is likely to be painfully slow for many, particularly those in the hardest hit provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Battambang and Siem Reap.

One tree at a time
Pressure on land in Cambodia only seemed to intensify in 2013, despite government pledges to curtail expanding economic land concessions (ELCs) and reign in illegal logging.

Throughout the year, the authorities regularly busted illegal logging operations, but few arrests were made and no major heads rolled, pointing to what dissenting voices have said is a network of patronage that binds powerful logging tycoons, such as Try Pheap, with connected businesspeople, politicians from the ruling party and the security forces.

Meanwhile, the litany of abuses of Cambodia’s forests piled up almost as fast as the rosewood was stashed in ELCs, with report after report showing the scale of the devastation.

Maps released in December showed less than two fifths of Cambodia’s forests remain intact, down from about 72 per cent in 1973.

Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary, it was revealed in October, has been 90 per cent deforested.

Prominent business owners such as Pheap, Ly Yong Phat and Kith Meng came under fire for their roles in the clearing of Cambodia, with several attempts made to bring pressure to bear on their logging operations across the country, to no avail.

In a victory of sorts for campaigners, Meng’s Royal Group had its licence to log a reservoir site at the Lower Sesan II dam site suspended in October pending review amid allegations loggers were felling trees outside of the agreed upon site.

But mogul Pheap hit back at his critics with a defamation suit against two farmers who accused him in a November report by the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force of logging illegally to enrich himself at the expense of locals and the environment.

End of the beginning
The proceedings at the Khmer Rouge tribunal – with its perennial funding woes, staffing problems and frequent criticism – are often marked by ups and downs, but never more so than in 2013, which saw what was perhaps the court’s greatest loss and arguably its most significant achievement.

In March, the tribunal suffered the loss of one of its highest-ranking defendants, former Khmer Rouge Foreign Affairs Minister Ieng Sary, who died of heart failure after a lengthy hospitalisation.

Coming just a few months after the release of his dementia-stricken wife, Ieng Thirith, Sary’s death rocked public confidence in the court, and renewed calls for a speedier trial capable of rendering verdicts against the remaining defendants – former head of state Khieu Samphan and ex-Brother No 2 Nuon Chea – before they too succumbed to old age.

However, a measure of that confidence was restored in October, when the court concluded the hearing of evidence in the first segment of its flagship trial, Case 002. In its final hearings both remaining defendants took to the stand to defend their actions.

Samphan emphasised that he had joined the Khmer Rouge with noble intentions, and maintained that he had no hope of a fair trial after having been portrayed as a “monster”. Nuon Chea, for his part, accepted “moral responsibility” for the regime’s failings, while maintaining that he had been ignorant of its crimes, for which he blamed “Vietnamese trickery”.

A young man is chased and beaten by police after an SL Garment factory demonstration turned violent in the capital’s Stung Meanchey district in November
A young man is chased and beaten by police after an SL Garment factory demonstration turned violent in the capital’s Stung Meanchey district in November. Vireak Mai

Deadly force
Cambodian authorities’ use of lethal force in quelling protests sparked outrage among activists and common citizens alike in 2013, with police gunfire killing two people and injuring many others during two separate incidents.

On the night of September 15, police opened fire into a crowd of people during a clash at a roadblock by the Kbal Thnal overpass, killing Mao Sok Chan, a 29-year-old construction worker who was trying to return home from work. Roadblocks had been in place across the city in the wake of a three-day Cambodia National Rescue Party protest from the 15th to the 17th.

Less than two months later, police fired into a crowd of hundreds of people supporting a garment worker strike at SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd., killing 49-year-old Eng Sokhom, a street vendor uninvolved in the protest.

The SL shooting, which occurred near the Stung Meanchey bridge in the capital’s Meanchey district, occurred after demonstrators began throwing rocks, burning police cars and trapped at least two police officers in a pagoda building.

Lip service was paid to launching investigations in both instances, but to date no progress has been reported.

In May, two pregnant women who attended a strike at Sabrina (Cambodia) Garment MFG Corp in Kampong Speu province miscarried after military police used electric batons to break up the protest there, which had turned violent.

That same month, authorities made a memorable non-lethal show of force, using water cannons on about 100 Boeung Kak lake, Borei Keila and Thmor Kol protesters, who were demonstrating against land grabs. The high-pressure water, which was turned on the group after they had blocked Monivong Boulevard in front of City Hall for more than two hours, knocked at least one woman unconscious.

A partial victory
The spirit of folk hero Ta Di – who, legend has it, threw himself from a cliff rather than surrender to the Thais – must have been smiling last month when the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Cambodia in its case on the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple.

The ICJ verdict was a partial victory for Cambodia – granting the Kingdom ownership of the promontory on which the UNESCO World Heritage Site sits while leaving in question the majority of the nearby disputed territory – that also managed to walk a political tightrope, preventing it from being portrayed as an inflammatory loss for Thailand.

The year leading up to the November 11 ruling was marked by tension and sabre-rattling, both in and out of the ICJ courtroom.

Months before the April hearings on the case even began, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul sought to pre-emptively calm Thai citizens over a potential loss, saying: “What frightens us is that some groups will manipulate people to do bad things if they don’t like the verdict.”

Those groups continued to call on the Thai government to reject the ruling before it was even made, while Cambodia, for its part, test-fired artillery and rockets in Kampong Speu just days before the ICJ hearings commenced.

But in the wake of the decision, calm prevailed, with troops on both sides refraining from clashes that had marked past years.

Political upheaval in Thailand, however, continues to prevent the November 10 ruling from being implemented, but Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith has said the Kingdom “won’t rush” Thailand to implement the order.

Long roads to freedom
On this day last year, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, two men wrongfully accused of murdering union leader Chea Vichea in 2004, were facing more prison time after the Appeal Court upheld a conviction of murder against them.

On the same day, Boeung Kak land-rights activist Yorm Bopha was sentenced to three years in prison on charges rights groups say were fabricated to silence her.

The cases, coming after Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison some months before, ended what civil society groups said was a dark year for human rights in Cambodia.
While concerns over human rights violations in Cambodia remain, 2013 will go down as the year in which those four were released.

On March 15, Sonando, convicted for a “masterminding a secessionist plot”, was the first of them to be freed after judges dropped the strongest charges against him and replaced them with a lesser, forestry-related crime.

He walked free with a suspended sentence to the cheers of his supporters, but his radio station’s signal has deteriorated.

In similar scenes, the Supreme Court erupted into applause on September 24 when Judge Khim Ponn read out an acquittal finding in Samnang and Sam Oeun’s case.

All charges were dropped and the judges admitted to having “no evidence”.

Bopha was less ecstatic about her release on bail on November 22.

As hundreds of the jailed activist’s supporters celebrated with monks outside the Supreme Court, Bopha expressed mixed feelings, pointing out that the courts still considered her guilty and could arrest her again – like they had previously with Samnang and Sam Oeun.

Rescue workers search through the rubble for survivors at a collapsed section of the Wing Star shoe factory in Kampong Speu in May
Rescue workers search through the rubble for survivors at a collapsed section of the Wing Star shoe factory in Kampong Speu in May. Pha Lina

Death amid the rubble
Two factory workers, one a teenage girl, were killed when a storage level collapsed at the Wing Star Shoes factory, a supplier to Asics, in Kampong Speu province on May 16.

The tragedy, which came just weeks after the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh, sent shockwaves through the industry.

The collapsed level, it was soon revealed, had been built without permission from authorities, shining a spotlight on the lack of building regulations in the Kingdom’s biggest export sector. One victim was first identified by authorities as Sim Srey Touch, 22. But her family later told the Post that her real name was Kim Dany and she was a 15-year-old girl who had used fake identification to gain employment at the factory only weeks earlier.

When Asics agreed in July to pay the families of the two workers killed an undisclosed amount in compensation, they revealed they had seen a birth certificate showing Dany to be only 13.

By that stage, families of the victims, including the uncle of Rim Roeun, 22, who left behind a newborn baby, complained of factory officials pressuring them to accept one-off compensation offers while they grieved.

Dany’s story drew attention to the hiring practices of Asics suppliers in Cambodia. In a Post investigation in late May, workers at Ying Dong Shoes on the outskirts of Phnom Penh said girls as young as 13 were employed at the factory, which supplied exclusively to Asics.

In the collapse’s aftermath, then Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng promised to form a building safety committee to prevent similar collapses. Seven months later, that is yet to happen.

Archaeologist Damian Evans compares a topographical map made by aerial laser technology to ruins at Beng Mealea temple in Siem Reap province in May
Archaeologist Damian Evans compares a topographical map made by aerial laser technology to ruins at Beng Mealea temple in Siem Reap province in May. Scott Howes

Heritage lost, gained
The nation’s cultural heritage was thrust into the spotlight for good and ill in 2013, most dramatically with the December theft of relics from a stupa on Oudong Mountain, among them, an urn said to contain cremated ashes of the Buddha.

The relics had resided in the ancient Khmer capital since being brought to Cambodia from Sri Lanka by the late King Norodom Sihanouk on the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s birth in 1957. Their theft prompted a nationwide outcry and outrage from a segment of monks, 100 of whom marched on a meeting of clergy in Phnom Penh to demand answers.

Weeks later, five men, four of them low-paid security guards, remain in custody, though few answers seem to be forthcoming.

Despite the relics’ theft, Cambodia also had moments to glory in its history in 2013.

In April, the conclusion of an intensive laser imaging study of the Angkor archaeological park revealed the national treasure to be some four times larger than previously believed. The new mapping cut through dense jungle to show an extensive collection of dykes and ancient roads that archaeologist Michael Coe described at the time as “absolutely mind-boggling”.

And the year closed on a high note, with news in mid-December that Sotheby’s auction house planned to return a 10th-century statue looted from the Koh Ker temple complex during the Khmer Rouge years, ending an ongoing lawsuit over the object. The sandstone sculpture, known as the Duryodhana, will join a pair of artefacts from the same temple that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return earlier in the year.

Mourners hold photographs of the late King Norodom Sihanouk during a ceremony in front of the Royal Palace in February
Mourners hold photographs of the late King Norodom Sihanouk during a ceremony in front of the Royal Palace in February. Sreng Meng Srun

Farewell to a King
A mix of emotion and pageantry reigned in the streets of Phnom Penh in early February as Cambodia said goodbye to its much-loved and iconic King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

The former king died aged 89 in Beijing on October 15, 2012, and an estimated 1 million people lined the streets of Phnom Penh, from the airport to the Royal Palace, to mark the return of this body.

Scenes in the streets on February 1 – the first of four days of funeral proceedings – were just as remarkable, when a grand procession was held in Sihanouk’s honour.

The King Father’s coffin, loaded into a ceremonial float, was surrounded by other floats at it paraded through the streets of the capital with members of the royal family and senior government officials close by.

Ministers, musicians, monks, soldiers and ethnic groups were among those who donned full regalia to join the procession. Three days later, smoke billowed into the sky from the Veal Preah Meru crematorium – built in three months for Sihanouk’s farewell – as thousands of mourners inside said a final goodbye to a monarch who ascended to the throne in 1941 as a teenager and declared Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953.

The sound of gunfire and the spectacle of fireworks over the Tonle Sap river shortly after 6:30pm indicated to tens of thousands of mourners that the cremation was beginning.

“I feel indebted to the King Father,” said Dom Sun, 80, from Kampong Cham province, who stood outside the crematorium. “When he was alive, he had time for all people – even the poorest of the poor. No hero of Cambodia has done what he did.”


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