Sen disregards covenant on rights

Friday, August 21, 2009

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth

August 19, 2009

One can learn much from old sayings and words of the wise. An African saying goes, "One must talk little and listen much." The Turks say, "Those who know do not talk; those who talk do not know." The Swedes say, "Whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more."

Mother Teresa of Calcutta implored, "There should be less talk. ... Take a broom and clean someone's house. That says enough."

Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Americans called "the best first lady" in United States history, is known for her work to improve the lot of the underprivileged. She said, "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."

In contemporary Cambodian politics, the small minds that delight in digging and throwing dirt at those they don't like are "willing executioners," tools of the ruling autocracy that needs them to overwhelm, distract and disrupt legitimate debate on issues of public and national interest. A boneless tongue that flaps, Cambodians say, turns a lone black crow into 10 ravaging crows.

Father Lawrence G. Lovasik, a missionary, wrote: "Only the ignorant and narrow-minded gossip, for they speak of persons instead of things," and that, "it is just as cowardly to judge an absent person as it is wicked to strike a defenseless one."

Lord Buddha teaches, "The evils of the tongue are lying, slander, abuse and idle talk."

Recently, a Khmer reader inquired about the meaning of the Khmer saying, "Somdei sar jiat," which, literally, means "words reveal one's race." The intent of the saying was to convey that words, spoken and written, reveal the kind of a person one is. One's value, worth, dignity -- or lack thereof -- are intertwined in his words.

American essayist, philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Words are alive; cut them and they bleed."

Last April 24, The Cambodia Daily's front page article, "Mu Sochua To Sue Premier For Defamation," reported on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's nationally broadcast speech on April 4, in which he affirmed that he wouldn't help villagers who side with the opposition. He spoke to the audience about a Mu Sochua, woman "cheung klang," or "strong legs," a derogatory term, who in the 2008 election campaign "hugged" someone and then complained her blouse had been "unbuttoned" by force.

The Daily said that in June 2008, an army officer "twisted her arm, thus making her blouse buttons come undone," so Sochua filed an "assault complaint."

At an April 23 press conference, Sochua announced her lawsuit against Sen for defamation, seeking 500 riels, or 13 cents. On April 27, The Daily reported on its front page: "Prime Minister To Countersue Mu Sochua."

Thus began a Khmer political ramvong, a popular slow dance in which participants move around and around in a circle to the sound of drums.

"Executive control of the court is an established fact and it is known that the court lacks independence," lamented the Asian Human Rights Commission in a press release.

On June 10, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court dismissed Sochua's lawsuit, claiming no defamation had occurred, but processed Sen's countersuit against Sochua.

On June 15, Human Rights Watch called on Sen's regime to "cease its threats, harassment, and spurious legal action against opposition members of parliament and lawyers defending free expression." The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights-Cambodia declared, "the use or the threat of legal action ... is a serious threat to democratic development which may undermine the efforts of the past 16 years to rebuild a tolerant and pluralistic environment in Cambodia."
Those words didn't matter to Sen and his ruling party.

On Aug. 4, the Court ordered Sochua to pay 8.5 million riel ($2,500) in fines to the state, and 8 million riels ($2,000) in compensation to Sen, for defaming the premier.

A day later, Sen, who likes to use ceremonies as platforms and the media as tools, warned in a graduation ceremony speech in Phnom Penh that government critics should "be careful with the language of 'dictatorial regime.' Be careful, one day legal action will be used" ... and "when legal action is used, you guys would say freedom of expression is prohibited, but your expression is wrong."

Sen, recipient of a University of Hanoi honorary doctorate, no doubt meant every word he said. For the last few months, several criminal defamation and disinformation lawsuits have been filed against government critics -- politicians, journalists and a 22-year-old law student.

Sen, premier of a country that signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and incorporated it into Cambodian law, tramples that law, tells the world it doesn't understand free expression as he does and makes clear he doesn't care who thinks what. Unconditional Chinese aid and assistance to keep him and his autocratic regime afloat allows him to thumb his nose to the West, who lecture him to respect the international standards of good governance.
That seems to leave Cambodians on their own.

One Web site, one group and a few others send out the message: "Cambodian younger generations are the hope, the catalyst and the agent of change for Cambodia."

Certainly, their time has come. My hat is off to them, I wish them success.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at


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