By Emilie Duchesne
It took me maybe five minutes to fall in love with Phnom Penh. I stepped out of the airport after my day-and-a-half redeye, thinking I was too exhausted to feel anything, and it woke me right up. At first it was the lack of traffic control. When you aren’t used to it, it’s hard to overstate how exhilarating it is to ride in a tuk-tuk at rush hour, with motos weaving in between cars and around street vendors. Being Canadian, and used to all the action being indoors, the next thing that struck me was how little is enclosed. Most restaurants and shops are open to the street, many ground-floor houses double as shops, and big groups of people eat street-food at tables a few feet from traffic. There is so much people-watching to be had that you couldn’t possibly catch it all.
I remember finding it jarring to see propagandistic Cambodian People’s Party signs on every street, but they quickly become invisible. Campaigning started today for the sham election, and I had my way blocked by a parade of twenty or so cars, trucks, and floats with CPP supporters yelling and waving banners. While I watched with interest, the people around me continued their conversations or took out their phones. Anything can seem normal after thirty-three years.
Some people had hoped this would be the last year of Hun Sen. The last national election nearly went to the opposition, and they made even more gains in local elections last year. But winning the popular vote in a military dictatorship can turn out to be a tactical mistake. Six months before I arrived, the CPP stopped tolerating dissent in any form. First, in November, they had the opposition party dissolved by the Supreme Court. Over 100 party members were banned from politics for five years and many others, including leader Kem Sokha, were jailed on spurious charges. In the months that followed, the CPP has systematically destroyed the independent media with forced closures and targeted arrests, and self-censorship is now pervasive among the independent journalists who remain in the country. The CPP has also recently passed a series of legislative amendments criminalizing free speech and authorizing intensive government surveillance of NGOs and the social media accounts of the general public. People have been targeted seemingly at random, creating a climate of paranoia. In one case that I researched, two former Radio Free Asia journalists, Oun Chhin and Yeang Sotherain, were charged with espionage and producing pornography after Oun, who was out of a job after the forced closure of Radio Free Asia’s Cambodian branch, set up a karaoke production studio in a guesthouse. When he called his friend and former colleague, Yeang, to testify that he had not been “spying”- which the CPP have re-defined to mean “telling the international community about the crackdown”- they arrested Yeang, too.
I arrived in the middle of a strange lull; on the one hand, everything is falling apart, and on the other, there is very little for anyone to do. NGOs and activist groups have observed the plight of people such as Chhin and Sotherarin who have been persecuted for nothing, and now have a well-grounded fear of being shut down, deported, or jailed. The threat of jail means something more in Cambodia- it’s not just loss of freedom, it’s confinement to filthy and severely over-crowded conditions, especially in Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar men’s prison. While the wealthy can bribe their way to relatively luxurious conditions, in the average cell there are a hundred people to one toilet and the men sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground. The overcrowding problem has in large part been brought on by the war on drugs, a hugely ineffective and ill-executed strategy inspired by the American war on drugs. LICADHO’s prison team monitors 18 of the 28 prisons, interviewing the prisoners to ensure their rights are not being violated and providing them with medical care, but there is simply not enough money or doctors to provide what should be a social service, if the government had any interest in that sort of thing.
And then there are the quieter but equally horrible everyday effects of a dysfunctional government: corrupt pay-to-care police, corrupt pay-to-win judiciary, no public healthcare, no social security, substandard public schools, and the list goes on. The NGOs function as a sort of decentralized bureaucracy, attempting to fill in the gaps, but the uneven quality of NGOs and lack of a coordinating mechanism makes this impossible. The government has no incentive to improve the state of things because Chinese investment will keep pouring in either way. The country keeps getting richer on paper, but it isn’t trickling down. The basic agreement between Cambodia and China is that China provides lots of no-strings-attached aid, by contrast with international aid, which is contingent on respecting human rights standards. In exchange, Chinese businesses get to build developments wherever they want, leaving evicted Cambodians and environmental destruction in their wake. In the words of my tour guide at Angkor Wat, who turned out to be a fascinating person: “why does China only give money to bad guys? Because the bad guys are easy to control.” Most recently, Hun Sen granted a cheap 99-year lease to China to develop a massive resort on Cambodia’s valuable and ecologically sensitive coastline. It will cover a full 20% of the coast, and will include its own airport, leading some to question whether China has effectively been granted sovereignty over a huge parcel of Cambodia. This is only one of many land concessions that have been granted to foreign interests, mostly China and Vietnam.
Before I showed up here, I was preoccupied by the question of how to get rid of Hun Sen. Practically speaking, what would the international community need to do- sanction the textile industry, cut off aid? Would the human costs be too high, and would these methods even work? It seemed like a logical question to me. If you’re faced with a hydra, everyone knows you don’t cut off one of the heads- you have to stab the heart.
Now that I am here, it seems obvious that I was asking the wrong question. Of course the international community could do something. I don’t know the best method of intervention, but I am not a political strategist. What I do know is that when the World Bank cut funding to Cambodia in 2011, largely in response to protests by Phnom Penh’s evicted Boeung Kak lake community, the government finally gave the community the compensation they had demanded. However, the World Bank went back on its promise not to end the funding freeze until the government had addressed the land grabbing problem. They reinstated funding even though land grabbing remains the single most prominent political issue in Cambodia. One of my tasks at LICADHO is to keep a record of the land protesters who come to the capital to protest, and I quickly found myself getting confused between all the different but often related conflicts. In total, 23 communities representing more than 2,400 families across 11 provinces came to Phnom Penh in June alone; this does not include various communities that chose to take their complaints to provincial authorities instead.
Engagements like this on the part of the international community are par for the course in Cambodia- a short burst of interest, and then nothing. Despite various condemnations of the opposition party’s dissolution and much discussion, so far aid has not been cut and trade agreements remain intact.
This international disinterest is especially depressing considering that Cambodia’s problems have been created to a large extent by other countries’ foreign policies since at least French colonial times, and arguably far longer. Today, the biggest player is China, but historically Cambodia has been caught between the “tiger and the crocodile” of Vietnam and Thailand, and during the Vietnam war Cambodian civilians were heavily bombed by the United States. The rise of the Khmer Rouge- like so many other human rights atrocities- has been persuasively linked to American interventionism in the region. The concept of sovereignty seems entirely empty in a context such as this, where the self-interested meddling of foreign elites carries so much more influence than the democratic will of the people. The rest of the world is by far more responsible for Hun Sen than Cambodians, who have never elected him in a fair election, but they don’t see it that way. The United States has not paid any reparations, and instead is still asking Cambodia to repay loans used to feed refugees whose homes were destroyed by the bombing. China is still happily munching away like Cambodia is a snack to tide it over between Africa and the Middle East. And the EU has bigger fish to fry- in the words of my colleague, “there is always something even worse happening somewhere, and they aren’t doing anything there, either.”
Human rights work in an autocracy is draining, frustrating, and tragic, and yet meaningful work does get done. It is really something to watch the people who do this work and to speak them about why they do it.
What do you do when you can’t kill a hydra? It turns out that you do whatever can be done, including slicing the same heads over and over to momentarily stop them from eating people. The progress is slow, and there is personal sacrifice almost universally.
I met one woman, a lawyer at another NGO, who was threatened by the government and forced to quit her job. She quit working for a year and then returned and continued representing the people the government wants to shut up- land activists, human rights defenders, and people who have had their land illegally grabbed. She loses almost every single case because judicial independence is non-existent in Cambodia. It’s a testament to her ingenuity that she still manages to win occasionally. But as any lawyer knows, winning and losing trials isn’t the biggest part of the job; it’s supporting clients through difficult decisions in through a careful, researched appraisal of the options. She can’t always, even often, get people a win when they deserve it, but she can make sure they understand their procedural rights and their options. And there are little wins, mostly cases that are dropped for lack of evidence when she pushes for this at the pre-trial stage.
This lawyer and her assistant, who has been failed at the Cambodian equivalent of the bar twice now because of corruption, are two of the people I admire most in this world. They both knew that they were signing up to be discriminated against when they decided to do human rights work, and they have been. They decided to do it anyway. Lawyers everywhere face the choice between selling out and doing good work, but in Cambodia that choice is starker and more lasting.
I also want to tell you about a colleague of mine. His family fell into poverty when he was young, and he put himself through university by working as a nighttime security guard and then by working fulltime. He chose to work in human rights, knowing the salary would be modest, and he regularly works 50+ hour weeks, which is a lot even for LICADHO staff, who are in general the hardest-working people I have ever met. Most of his salary goes toward his little brother’s university fees. He told me some friends who graduated with him work in government, which entails very little work and making a comfortable living off bribes. He would never judge them, and said he see it as people doing what they need to do to get by. Thinking of myself, and the temptation I’ve felt at times to sell out, I asked if he had ever considered it. He hadn’t. He told me he loves his job and considers himself lucky to love what he does. He also told me he would continue even if he didn’t- the work is too important to stop.
 https://www.reuters.com/article/cambodia-worldbank/world-bank-stops-funds-for-cambodia-over-evictions-idUSL3E7J920D20110809 ; https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/world-bank-loan-of-100-million-angers-boeng-kak-activists-128160/