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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Scribe's Murder, Temple Dispute Muddy Cambodian Polls

Scribe's Murder, Temple Dispute Muddy Cambodian Polls

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

PHNOM PENH (irrawaddy.org) — Cambodia has entered the final week of its national election campaign shocked by the murder of a well-known journalist and facing an increasingly tense standoff with Thailand over a disputed 11th century Hindu temple.

The July 11 slaying of Khim Sambo in a drive-by-shooting in Phnom Penh has cast a cloud over the poll, which until then had been largely free of serious violence, and sent shock waves through the journalist community.

"For Cambodian people it is scary," said Kek Galabru, president of Licadho, a prominent local human rights organization that is investigating the incident. "The killing will have a negative impact on the election. In journalists it will increase self-censorship. There is a chilling effect. Everyone is wondering who will be next."

Although some have claimed that the Sambo killing was an election-related political assassination, no evidence has been produced to back this.

"We estimate at 70 percent (probability) that this is a revenge case," Phnom Penh police commissioner Touch Naroth told the media last week. "The journalist could have had personal conflicts."

The most feasible explanation, according to local and international human rights groups, is that Sambo was killed because of his articles.

A veteran reporter for the newspaper ‘Monseaseka,’ or Khmer Conscience, which is affiliated to the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), the country’s main opposition political party, Sambo reported on issues relating to corruption, land grabbing and other controversial topics.

Monseaseka’s editor, Dam Sith, an SRP election candidate, was last month charged with defamation against a senior government minister and jailed for a week.

In a statement the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "concerned that Sambo may have been targeted in reprisal for his reporting on government corruption."

"My feeling is that it is certainly related to what he wrote," said Galabru. "Whatever the case, there was a crime and we want the authorities to mount a serious investigation to being the perpetrators to justice."

No one has yet been arrested for the killing and opposition parties and human rights investigators are pessimistic that any one will be.

According to the United Nations Office of High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia, Sambo’s killing is one of eight similar murders and attempted murders of journalists since 1994.

In all the cases cited by OHCHR no one was arrested and the perpetrators remain at large.

The uncertainty relating to Sambo’s death says much about the difficulties facing journalists in Cambodia. Almost all Cambodia’s media is politically aligned, either through the direct ownership by parties or by wealthy individuals who have strong political connections.

According to a May 2008 Licadho study on the state of the country’s media, journalists are typically poorly paid and many live in fear of physical or legal attack because of their work. "Fear is a fact of life for many of Cambodia’s journalists," it said.

The study cited a 2007 survey of 150 journalists which showed that 65 percent of them were afraid of being physically attacked, and 62 percent feared legal action. "More tellingly, 54 percent said they had been threatened with physical harm or legal action,’’ the survey said.

The report also stated that problems also arise from endemic corruption in the media, with many journalists regularly taking bribes for favorable coverage or for not reporting stories.

"Even if it (the Sambo killing) is not politically related the environment of fear it creates is a serious issue", said Mar Sophal, monitoring coordinator with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

It is difficult to get accurate figures on the number of killings and acts of violence related to the election.

According to Sophal, by the end of last week there had been at least four politics-related deaths during the official four-week campaign period. Three of the victims were CPP-affiliated activists. The fourth was an opposition party supporter.

Another issue creating uncertainty in the closing stages of the Sunday election is the escalating dispute between Phnom Penh and Bangkok over the ownership of the Preah Vihear temple that stands on the border between the two neighboring countries.

The standoff has placed Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in a difficult position.

They must prevent a broader conflict while placating public anger over the presence of Thai soldiers in the temple, which many in the Khmer media are calling "an invasion".

The United Nations’ recognition of the temple as Cambodian produced a massive public outpouring of national fervor across the country, with mass rallies, cultural celebrations and fireworks displays. CPP officials were quick to credit the World Heritage committee’s decision to Hun Sen’s leadership and placed advertisements in all the Khmer newspapers stating this.

"They have tried to take credit for it and have used the state budget to promote themselves as heroes," said Son Chhay, an SRP parliamentarian. "Now they have backed off given their desire not to antagonize the Thais."

In a letter sent Saturday to the Thai Prime Minister, Hun Sen maintained the temple is Cambodian, but pressed for a negotiated end to the stalemate.

Indeed, it is the opposition parties that are now trying to take advantage of the situation.

In a statement released last week the SRP called the presence of Thai soldiers at the temple "an invasion" and said the government should refuse to negotiate "as long as the Thai government remains on Cambodian territory".

It demanded the withdrawal of the Thai ambassador and steps to "strengthen the armed forces into a national army that is capable and well-equipped with adequate weapons to withstand the invasion of neighboring countries."

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