Cambodia cracks down on dissenters

Sunday, July 26, 2009

By Tim Johnston in Bangkok
Published: July 26 2009

Asia is no stranger to governments using the courts to muzzle their detractors, but the Cambodian government’s current legal attack on its opponents is causing concern in the region.

Hang Chakra, former editor of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, is sharing a cell with 50 other convicts in Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison, serving a one-year sentence for articles that alleged corruption among government officials.

Moeung Sonn, head of the Khmer Cultural Civilisation Foundation, was last month sentenced to two years in jail in absentia for “disinformation” after suggesting that a new lighting system at the Angkor Wat temple complex might damage the 600-year-old buildings.

And on Friday, a court is to hand down its verdict in a case against Mu Sochua, an opposition parliamentarian accused of defamation against Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister.

“I’m sure I will be found guilty unless there is some magic in the air, and I don’t feel that there is,” she said on Sunday.

“The Cambodian government is imposing its most serious crackdown on freedom of expression in recent years,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said last week.

The case against Mu Sochua, a former minister for women and veteran’s affairs, is based on her allegation that Hun Sen called her “strong leg” – a cutting insult in Khmer culture – in a speech in her constituency in early April. When he declined to apologise, she called a press conference in which she alleged that not just herself, but all Cambodian women had been insulted.

That allegation provoked a counter-suit from Hun Sen. The courts threw out her case but agreed to hear Hun Sen’s complaint.

Her lawyer withdrew after he came under pressure, provoking a protest from the office of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mu Sochua declined to find a different attorney. “I am not going to put another lawyer through that torture,” she said.

If she is found guilty, she will face a fine of about $2,500 (€1,760, £1,520). More importantly, she could lose the right to sit in parliament. Some analysts say that might be Hun Sen’s intention.

“The concept of pluralism hasn’t got any roots in Cambodia,” said David Chandler, a professor of history at Monash University in Australia. “The opposition is almost by definition disloyal.”

Son Chhay, another outspoken opposition parliamentarian, says the recent crackdown is a symptom of a government that is trying to address the issues facing the country, such as corruption, land seizures and economic stagnation.

“Like many dictatorial regimes in the region, because they are unable to solve the problems, they resort to measures to control the people and shut them up,” he said.

“If he allowed Mu Sochua to challenge him, other people might go down the same path,” said Son Chhay.

In the early 1990s, the international community invested some $1.5bn in a UN operation to restore civil government to a country that Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, had run since 1985.

The opposition fears the prime minister is using his parliamentary majority – the CPP won 90 of the 123 seats in parliament in elections last year – to destroy fragile institutions that have taken years to build.

“It is not me on trial, but the judiciary of Cambodia that is on trial,” said Mu Sochua.


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