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A visionary behind the scenes

A visionary behind the scenes


From nationalist rebel to commentator with the Asian Human Rights Commission, Lao Mong Hay keeps his critical edge.

Lao Mong Hay has been working on Cambodian human rights issues since the 1980s. 

Having been the head of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front's (KPNLF)  Human Rights Unit during the 1980s, how do you see the human rights situation in Cambodia today? Have there been improvements?

With the movement from communism to a more liberal regime, restrictions such as movement inside and outside the country no longer need prior authorisation. Economic freedom is not complete, but largely free: If you have a skill or capital and you want to invest it, you can do it. But there is still largely a lack of freedom of expression. Who is in charge of the newspapers? Mostly people who are affiliated with the ruling party - so the papers are largely pro-government. Audiovisual media are controlled by the authorities, and there is no free editorial policy.

You spent time working as KPNLF president Son Sann's aide during the late 1980s and early 1990s. What do you recall about him?

We were instrumental in getting all the Cambodian factions to agree to accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then later on to agree to the human rights clauses in the Paris Peace Agreements. But since Son Sann was not successful in contesting the 1993 elections, those successes were kept at a low profile.

Son Sann was forward-looking for his age: When I got to the border, he initiated a number of programs to prepare people for repatriation and for rebuilding the country. He initiated the creation of a technical school, where refugees were trained in a number of technical skills, and an institute of public administration to train district leaders and officials in public administration, economics and law. There were hundreds of graduates from that school.

  Who can be sure our leader will not appoint his descendants, like kim il sung and kim jong il have?

The KPNLF was in nominal alliance with the Khmer Rouge during this period. Did this worry you? How did it influence your human rights perspective?

When I joined the KPNLF in the field to work with the fighters, I told Son Sann and my senior colleagues that I would not have the letters CGDK [Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea] on my namecard. I would only have the KPNLF. When I came to work closely with the KPNLF and the people, we brought to the Cambodian communities on the border - and later, inside the country - the concepts of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Later on when people were repatriated from the border, the seeds of human rights and democracy were created inside the country. But unfortunately, because Son Sann was not successful at the elections, we could not translate the ideas that we cherished into concrete actions.

What is the most pressing human rights issue in Cambodia right now?

Freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means ideas, which can be critical of the government. But our rulers do not accept freedom of expression or ideas that are not compatible with their own. That's the definition of dictatorship.
Is it dangerous for democracy that the Human Rights Party is not allowed to speak in the National Assembly?

This is part of the curb on freedom of expression. That rule is unconstitutional. The affected party and all MPs should check the Constitution and should ask the Constitutional Council to remove that clause.

How do you view the growing influence of the Chinese government in Cambodia? Will it set back human rights?

Not directly. Being a communist country whose government is not responsive to the people, we can't expect China to do otherwise. And China is like any big power in the past. It is solely concerned with its own strategic or economic interests, and foreign aid basically serves foreign policy. Look at the American government. So long as recipient countries pursue policies in conformity with American foreign policy, they will give aid. There's a double standard: America can support dictatorships as well as democracies.

Following your work with Yash Ghai, do you think that Cambodia can benefit from hosting a UN special rapporteur for human rights?

Cambodia can swing like a pendulum from one extreme to another, and a third party can help restrain us. We agreed already, when we signed the Paris Peace Agreements, that there should be a special rapporteur in the form of the UN representative. But through hostility towards the field office of the UN's High Commissioner on Human Rights, and through hostility to the special representative, Cambodia showed that it is not sincere in its pledges to the Paris Peace Agreements. When we pledge something in front of the international community, we should honour it.

Is the current period of CPP dominance an indication of democracy functioning successfully or a slide back into one-party rule?

The last election was a bad turn for Cambodia. Look at how the elections were controlled, right down to the grassroots. All institutions of the country are controlled by the ruling party: our King, our Constitutional Council, our courts, our parliament, our civil service, our army and police force. They should be politically neutral. To correct this flaw, we must pass a law preventing any members of these institutions from being members of any political party. And it needs to be enforced.

What do you think about the new alliance between the SRP and HRP?

I don't think the two parties could work very well together. There are clashes of personality. There are no clear ideas or policies. This sort of alliance comes and goes, and they'll need to work hard to consolidate their unity.

What do you think caused the royalists' decline in politics?

Authoritarianism. When leaders are so autocratic, their subordinates lose their creativity. I have met some of them. At the beginning, they were very bright, but after one or two years there were no more ideas because they were not allowed to think.

There are some princes that have continued to be in politics, for instance Sisowath Sirirath. The nation might be in crisis later on, and we might need the royalists as we did in the 1980s and 1990s. And who can be sure our ruler will not appoint his descendants, like Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have? He could become King under a new name.

How do the old political leaders - like Son Sann - compare with new leaders, like Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha?

Some of those old leaders started off with work experience as government officials and then, when the French left, they became leaders. For the time that the French had been in Cambodia, they left behind a reasonable working system of government: the basic institutions of the Cambodian state, and the rule of law. So we were more conscious about rules. Compare this to leaders now. How long was Sam Rainsy in government? Two years, and at the top. And Kem Sokha: What work experience in public administration does he have?

Recently, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has been beset by disagreements over whether prosecutions should be broadened to include other prominent KR figures.

In principle, I agree with the UN experts of the late 1990s. The creation of that court has defined one legal principle already: All those who are suspected of committing any crimes should be held accountable and should be tried. Look at the statement of our Cambodian co-prosecutor. She mentioned the political instability that might be caused by that sort of prosecution. As a prosecutor, she should not bother about that. If somebody has been accused of a crime, it is the government's responsibility to ensure stability, not the court's.

Interview by Neth Pheaktra and Sebastian Strangio 


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