Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer
By SETH MYDANS (The New York Times)
Incumbent Mu Sochua, 55, is already campaigning for the 2013 parliamentary election
MAK PRAING, CAMBODIA — “I’m going to get my votes!” cried Mu Sochua as she stepped into a slender rowboat, holding one side for balance. “One by one.”
She was crossing a small river here in southern Cambodia on a recent stop in her never-ending campaign for re-election to Parliament, introducing herself to rural constituents who may never have seen her face.
The most prominent woman in Cambodia’s struggling political opposition, Mu Sochua, 55, is campaigning now, three years before the next election, because she is almost entirely excluded from government-controlled newspapers and television.
“Only 35 percent of voters know who won the last election,” she said.
She has no time to lose.
Ms. Mu Sochua is a member of a new generation of women who are working their way into the political systems of countries across Asia and elsewhere, from local councils to national assemblies and cabinet positions.
A former minister of women’s affairs, she did as much as anyone to put women’s issues on the agenda of Cambodia as it emerged in the 1990s from decades of war and mass killings. But she lost her public platform in 2004 when she broke with the government, and she is now finding it as difficult to promote her ideas as it is to simply gain attention as a candidate.
She says her signal achievement, leading the way for women into thousands of government positions, has done little to advance women’s issues in a stubbornly male-dominated society.
And like dissidents and opposition figures in many countries, she has found herself with a new burden: battling for her own rights. As she has risen in prominence, the political stands she has taken have become a greater liability to her than gender bias has been.
Most recently, she has been caught in a bizarre tit-for-tat exchange of defamation suits with the country’s domineering prime minister, Hun Sen, in which, to no one’s surprise, she was the loser.
It started last April here in Kampot Province, her constituency, when Mr. Hun Sen referred to her with the phrase “cheung klang,” or “strong legs,” an insulting term for a woman in Cambodia.
She sued him for defamation; he stripped her of her parliamentary immunity and sued her back. Her suit was dismissed in the politically docile courts. In August she was convicted of defaming the prime minister and fined 16.5 million riel, or about $4,000, which she has refused to pay.
“Now I live with the uncertainty about whether I’m going to go to jail,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m not going to pay the fine. Paying the fine is saying to all Cambodian women, ‘What are you worth? A man can call you anything he wants, and there is nothing you can do.”’
This gesture is one of the few ways she has left to champion the rights of women, the central passion of her public life.
As an outspoken opponent of the prime minister, she has found, her participation taints any group, action or demonstration with the stigma of political opposition.
“My voice kills the movement,” she said. “It’s my failure. Now I am the face of the opposition, a woman’s face in opposition. Women say, ‘We believe in you. We admire you. But we can’t be with you because the movement will die.”’
During her six years as minister of women’s affairs, Ms. Mu Sochua campaigned against child abuse, marital rape, violence against women, human trafficking and the exploitation of female workers. She helped draft the country’s law against domestic violence.
In part because of her work, she said, “People are aware about gender. It’s a new Cambodian word: ‘gen-de.’ People are aware that women have rights.”
But where political empowerment of women is concerned, she said, quantity has not produced quality, and prominence has not translated into progress for a women’s agenda.
Over the years, Ms. Mu Sochua has worked with nongovernmental groups to field thousands of candidates in local elections. Largely because of her activism, there are now 27 women in a National Assembly of 123 seats.
But 21 of these are members of the governing Cambodian People’s Party — window dressing, she said — and have little impact, following the party line like their male counterparts.
“They don’t speak out,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about this — I don’t want to antagonize women — but if women suffer from our silence, we are responsible. What are we doing to make their lives better?
“This is where women can hurt women. They are in politics, but they are part of the problem by keeping silent.”
Cambodia is still a traditional society in which women are expected to behave demurely and subordinate themselves to men. Schooled in the United States, Ms. Mu Sochua said she had to keep an eye on her own Westernized ideas and behavior, to be “careful I don’t push things too far.”
The daughter of a well-to-do merchant in Phnom Penh, she was sent to study in the West at the age of 12, ending up at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a master’s degree in social work and thrived on the culture of outspokenness of the 1970s.
“When I hit San Francisco, I knew that that was my city,” she said. “I began to shine. I let my hair grow. I looked like a hippie.”
She met her future husband, an American, when both were assisting Cambodian refugees on the Thai border after the fall of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. Since 1989 they have lived together in Cambodia, where he works for the United Nations. They have three grown children living in the United States and Britain.
“I have to be very, very careful about what I bring from the West, to promote women’s rights within the context of a society that is led by men,” she said. “In the Cambodian context, it’s women’s lib. It’s feminism. It’s challenging the culture, challenging the men.”
She has this in mind as she walks through the villages of her constituency, a woman with power but a woman nonetheless. “I walk into a cafe, and I have to think twice, how to be polite to the men,” she said. “I have to ask if I can enter. This is their turf. I am a woman, and I should be sitting in one of these little shops and selling things.”
And so she paused the other day at the stoop of a little cafe here in this riverside village, an open-fronted noodle shop where men sat in the midday heat on red plastic chairs.
She had succeeded in halting a sand-dredging project that was eroding riverbanks here, and she wanted the men to know that she had been working on their behalf.
“I came here to inform you that you got a result from the government,” she told the men, showing them a legal document. “I want to inform you that you have a voice. If you see something wrong, you can stand up and speak about it.”
Asked afterward what it was like to have a woman fighting his battles, Mol Sa, 37, a fisherman, said, “She speaks up for us, so I don’t think she’s any different from a man. Maybe a different lady couldn’t do it, but she can do it because she is strong and not afraid.”
Fear was a theme as Ms. Mu Sochua moved through the countryside here. At another village, where cracks were appearing in the sandy embankment, a widow named Pal Nas, 78, said the big dredging boats had scared her.
“I’m afraid that if I speak out, they will come after me,” she said. “In the Khmer Rouge time, they killed all the men. When night comes, I don’t have a man to protect me. It’s more difficult if you are a woman alone.”
Mr. Hun Sen’s party holds power throughout most of rural Cambodia, and Ms. Mu Sochua said that party agents kept an eye on her as she campaigned.
Before she boarded the little boat to cross the river, a man on a motorcycle took photographs of her and her companions with a cellphone, then drove away.
Across the river, a farmer greeted her warmly, climbing a tree to pick ripe guavas for her.
“I voted for you,” he said as he handed her the fruit. “But don’t tell anyone.”
Labels: Election, Mu Sochua, Sam Rainsy Party, SRP
» Read more!
The opposition party has lost touch and Chinese patronage is threatening the prospect of multi-party democracy.
By BRENDAN BRADY
European Press Photo Agency
Opposition party members watch Sam Rainsy speak from exile.
A Cambodian court on Jan. 27 sentenced the country's main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, in absentia to two years in jail, in a closed-door trial that opposition politicians and rights groups called blatant political persecution. The eponymous Sam Rainsy Party, the largest opposition party in Cambodia, says their power will not be affected by their leader's absence. He has, after all, fled the country before when facing a similar sentence, which was eventually annulled after negotiations with the ruling Cambodian People's Party and the king.
But when and if Mr. Rainsy returns, the promise of the opposition movement appears bleaker than ever—and his leadership is partly to blame. Many civil society groups that were once moved by Mr. Rainsy's calls for transparent and democratic governance are now critical of his party's current direction: They see the party as having lost touch with its original pro-democracy platform and focusing instead on emotional nationalistic disputes with the ruling party.
"The Sam Rainsy Party has become reactionary and lost their core liberal democratic message," says Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "They have become quite weak, and their future is in great trouble if they keep waiting for confrontational events to get media attention. They need to return to offering alternative policies." A survey released Feb. 2 by the International Republican Institute speaks to Mr. Virak's point. It found that Cambodians want to hear less bickering between parties and more about proposals for solutions to problems they face.
For ammunition, critics need look no further than the recent publicity stunt in which Mr. Rainsy helped villagers uproot posts demarcating Cambodia's border with Vietnam—the same act that earned his recent conviction. To score political points, the Sam Rainsy Party has revved up its criticism of Vietnam's alleged encroachment on Cambodian land, claiming that Prime Minister Hun Sen and his deputies were "letting" their more powerful neighbor do it. But relatively few Cambodians were actually affected by the demarcation of Vietnamese and Cambodian land in the isolated and scarcely populated border region; whereas thousands of Cambodians were evicted from their homes last year throughout other parts of the country.
The Sam Rainsy Party still has a popular leader in Mr. Rainsy's absence: Secretary General Mu Sochua. She is one of the few Cambodian politicians who can frequently be found walking through villages to talk to people about their problems, and her strident criticisms of the ruling party have earned her admiration in some quarters. But even she may not be able to save the party from decline.
To understand what the diminished strength of the Sam Rainsy Party means for Cambodia, it's important to understand the role the opposition party has played in the country's democratic development. Mr. Rainsy returned from to Cambodia from France in 1992, as the United Nations was beginning its peacekeeping mission in the war-torn country. Although the U.N. poured nearly $2 billion and some 20,000 soldiers and civilian staff into the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, it left in 1993 with only a fragile peace and political agreement in place between the country's factions.
Mr. Rainsy was at the forefront of the budding pro-democracy movement that inspired many at that time. When Mr. Rainsy started his own party in 1995, he distinguished himself from other politicians by putting democratic principles at the helm of his platform, and he claimed his movement would "mobilize millions of people" who shared the same ideals. Indeed, the Sam Rainsy Party offered a significant domestic voice fighting against graft and urging improved wages for workers and greater rights protections for all.
But now even this limited collective bulwark is breaking down—and not just because Mr. Rainsy is in exile. For the last couple of decades many of the most potent checks and balances against the ruling party have come from the leverage of Western aid donors, who attach stipulations of standards in governance and human rights to the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money that flows into the country each year. But this equation is changing: With Beijing's patronage of Cambodia's government growing, the influence of Western countries to push for transparency and rights protections is weakening.
This was dramatically displayed last December when Beijing officials were able to lean on their counterparts in Phnom Penh to ensure a group of Uighur asylum seekers were sent back to China. Thanks in part to this phenomenon, the ruling party has been able to solidify its dominance over opposition parties by pushing through a constitutional amendment in 2006 that reduces the electoral majority it needs to stay in power.
Cambodia is beginning to look more and more like its neighbors, which are mostly one-party states. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the country's nascent multi-party democracy was riven by intimidation and violence, but there was space for competing ideas and parties to have a voice. Today, the main opposition party finds itself repeatedly muzzled. As China's influence in Southeast Asia continues to expand, this pattern may only grow stronger.
Mr. Brady is a free-lance journalist based in Southeast Asia.
Labels: Sam Rainsy, Sam Rainsy Party
» Read more!
A lake development project is fueling thousands of forced evictions in the Cambodian capital.
A Phnom Penh family, finishes fishing and chores on the banks of the polluted Boeung Kak lake, currently under development. The mass of sand behind them used to line the Mekong River. (photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia - There are plenty of guns in Cambodia, but I cannot get used to them being pointed at me, even in jest. After all, I'm just picking at my lunch, staring lazily at Phnom Penh's biggest lake, Boeung Kak, and the massive sandy beach across the water. Two years ago, the area was thriving with fishermen. Now, the beach is moving closer to the spot where I sit, minute by minute. Most of the fishermen are gone.
The man with the gun stands, gesturing for me to follow him. He jerks his chin upwards as he strides down the open deck of the bar and restaurant of a one-time popular guest house in the seedy backpacker area of the city. His ruddy face projects menace, but only in an act of self-protection. "Is not real," he asides of the rifle when we get to the edge of the water.
I look at the gun. It is carved from a solid piece of wood. It could kill someone, sure, but it cannot protect him from what is being stolen from him, even as we stand watching.
The capital city's largest remaining natural lake is being filled in with sand to make way for a residential and shopping district. It's sparked a wave of forced evictions known more commonly around the country as "landgrabbing," kicked off by the city's February 2007 agreement with Shukaku Inc., in which the company paid $79 million for a 99-year lease on the land.
That is, the land invisible under the water. To make it useful for the development project, of course, Shukaku Inc. had to devise a way ofgetting to that land. So in late August 2008, a massive drainage pipe began pumping sand into the water at a rate of around 25 square meters per hour. Residents fled. Many had not been notified in advance.
I asked the restaurant manager if tourism would soon be affected, and my armed companion scoffs. "Is already," he says in his rolling Khmer accent, waving the gun toward the sandy beach. As many Cambodians do, he declines to give his name to reporters out of fear of government retaliation.
The back door of artist Leang Seckon's studio overlooks Boeung Kak. Many lakeside residents are unsure when flooding, pollution, or landslides will force them to abandon their homes. (photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)
This isn't an idle fear, either: According to the local human rights group Adhoc, the number of arrests of human rights activists in Cambodia rose by about 70% in 2009. Most arrests were of people speaking out about housing and land rights.
"Before, this was a beautiful lake and people came from the city to watch the sunset. Maybe a part of this is also the amount of tourists coming to Cambodia, I don't know. But now ..."
He turns back and looks at the paltry number of customers lunching at the establishment. Two men argue over coffee, a young woman shoots pool in the corner. This is high tourist season in Cambodia. Other proprietors I've spoken to, in other tourist areas of town, have seen business pick up again after the previous year's drop.
Part of the problem here could be the smell. Pollution was noticeable, but not overwhelming, when the lake was at its peak. Now, rising levels of rotting garbage, fish carcasses and raw sewage are plainly visible - and malodorous.
"... What to do?" The guest house manager finishes his thought.
In early February, 100 affected residents gathered at City Hall to protest the city's handling of drainage at the construction site. Wastewater was backing up, they complained. One woman's kitchen was entirely submerged, she told the Phnom Penh Post, and it was still the dry season. The city has so far failed to create an adequate drainage system for the construction sites.
In Cambodia, fetid water is not only unseemly. It's also a health risk in a country plagued by malaria and Dengue fever.
Of course, the development project also violates several federal laws. A 2009 report from the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), an international human rights organization, finds multiple causes for concern. Among them, that leases for state public property cannot change the function of land nor last for longer than 15 years. And, land over which people already hold titles, which have not been bought out in advance of the agreement, cannot be leased by third parties. Additionally, the report charges, evictions are only legally allowable under certain circumstances that do not include private development projects. (Resultant evictions are also found in the report to be in violation of international human rights law obligations.)
Secondary affects of the development project also concern local organizations. In May of 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen halted all dredging of sand from the Mekong for export purposes due to environmental concerns, yet dredging for domestic purposes continues. A site directly across the water from Phnom Penh's Royal Palace pipes sand into Boeung Kak. The Cambodia Daily reports that some dredging companies pull as much as 2,000 tons of sand from the riverbed daily, but no official records are maintained.
In residential areas near dredge sites, homeowners report riverbank landslides coinciding with sand pulls. Many have been forced to move from their traditional stilted homes, concerned their families will one day tumble into the water. (These figures are not counted in displacement statistics.)
The Ministry of Environment claims that the amount of removed sand is recovered annually. The landslides, it charges, are caused by natural erosion.
It's this kind of official response that has my friend with the wooden rifle frustrated. He's been to meeting after meeting, and signed petition upon petition. All to no satisfaction. "I wish I could go to the government," he says and he looks over at the encroaching sand.
Across from us, three of the last remaining handful of fisherman that work the lake shuffle something small from the water in their bamboo baskets, even as more land piles up behind them. Figures on how many people made their living selling fish from this lake are unavailable, as are the number of people who sustained themselves almost exclusively by eating their catch, or picking the vegetables that grow along the lakeside.
In 2007, city authorities claimed that only 600 people would be affected by the development project; that number has been surpassed. NGOs place the number of persons displaced at between 4,250 and 30,000 people. The city has offered some families three choices: move to the northeast corner of the city, into government-approved housing projects still under construction; take an $8000 lump payment in compensation, far lower than the market value of their property; or wait until alternative housing is built in the neighborhood.
Other families have simply seen their houses crumble, with no advance warning from construction crews or government officials.
Artist Leang Seckon hopes this doesn't happen to him. His studio opens onto the lake thousands of Cambodians have called home ever since the Khmer Rouge regime ended and people started moving back into the city 30 years ago. Born in the provinces, Seckon spent the first ten years of his life in the rice fields. His work often touches on the environmental issues that are close to his heart.
"I need nature, I need water, I need"-here he breathes deeply- "fresh air." He's excited that the government has made recent moves to cease illegal logging and halt some sand-dredging from the Mekong. But he's received no notice about when he's expected to vacate the space he's worked in for 18 years.
His studio sits north of the backpacker district, so he probably has a little more time. He just doesn't know how much. "Now the company buy the lake, and destroy the lake. Soon-I don't know when but soon-they build a city."
Land prices in Phnom Penh have increased tenfold in recent years. Prices are expected to rise even more as high-profile projects like the country's first-ever skyscraper, Gold Tower 42, are completed as soon as 2012. The country may be under development, and it's clear that some are seeing benefits from the boom. But others wonder who is paying the real price.
More upset at the loss of the city's natural resource than the loss of his studio, Seckon considers the matter. "I not feel happy at all," he declares.
Little is known about the company behind the development project, Shukaku Inc. Some press reports have linked it to Cambodian People's Party Senator Lau Meng Khin, also a close friend of Hun Sen. Chinese investment has been linked to the controversial project, but South Korea has denied any involvement. South Korean interests are behind many development projects in the city, including Gold Tower 42.
"It's got to be developed," my weaponed associate proclaims of the city from the deck of the guest house. He then outlines a plan where the lake is cleaned of pollution instead of filled, and the ramshackle guest houses in the rundown backpacker district are funded to make improvements. "It's good for tourism," he offers.
This should count for something. Alongside the construction/real estate sector, tourism is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. It's the justification for a handful of new public works projects in the city, such as Watermusic, a light show and fountain timed to blaring pop songs that draws local-and tourist-crowds every weekend night.
The guest house proprietor's revitalization plan, he says, has been incorporated into various official proposals for years. Still, it's gotten nowhere. Rather, as my armed companion explains, the powers that be just don't like it.
"I'm sure the government don't think the same," he says, using the Khmer phrase more properly translated as, "agree with us."
But there is more than a difference of opinion at stake. He rests his prop gun against a table and refuses to comment on the friends and neighbors who have already been forced to move. Where they are, how they're adjusting, what businesses they've gone into: he doesn't want to say, for fear he'll be labeled a political agitator.
Or maybe his fear is more personal. Soon, he'll have to close down the guest house and join them, he says.
"We'll see," he says, when asked what he'll do next. "We'll see."
Labels: Corruption, Phnom Penh
» Read more!
In recent years, Cambodia has experienced a surge in the use of methamphetamines, known here and in Thailand as "crazy medicine." Apart from the 11 government-run centers, drug users in Cambodia have few places to turn for help with their addictions.Photo: Justin Mott for The New York Times - More photos
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Nguyen Minh Tam said he got used to the routine during three months in a government drug detention center, although he sometimes lost consciousness: three punches to the chest when he woke up in the morning and three more before he went to bed.
Another heroin addict said he was whipped until he passed out with a twisted metal wire as thick as his thumb. “They used a blanket to cover me, and they beat me,” said the detainee, who insisted that only his first name, Chandara, be used. “There were 10 of them beating me.”
Ban Sophea, on the other hand, an emaciated man who supports his heroin habit by collecting used cans and bottles, said things were quite different for him during a carefully monitored 10-day detention.
“They gave us medicine three times a day from a bottle that looked like a whiskey bottle,” he said. “The rest of the time we just wasted time and ate. They let us dance and eat cake. We were eating all the time.”
These treatments — both the physical abuse and the involuntary administration of an experimental drug — have stirred concern in Cambodia since they were documented recently by the New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch.
In a report last month, Human Rights Watch described in detail abuses in 11 government-run centers that included electric shocks, beatings, rapes, forced labor and forced donations of blood.
“Sadistic violence, experienced as spontaneous and capricious, is integral to the way in which these centers operate,” the report said. “Human Rights Watch found the practice of torture and inhuman treatment to be widely practiced throughout Cambodia’s drug detention centers.”
This description echoes a separate Human Rights Watch report, also issued in January, about compulsory drug detention centers in China that it said denied inmates treatment for drug dependence and “put them at risk of physical abuse and unpaid forced labor.”
In Cambodia, the government dismissed the report as being “without any valid grounds” but did not address most of its allegations.
“The centers are not detention or torture centers,” said Meas Virith, deputy secretary of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, at a news conference this month. “They are open to the public and are not secret centers.”
In December, the government tried another approach that also drew criticism from rights groups and health professionals: administration of an experimental herbal drug imported from Vietnam but not registered for use in Cambodia.
Twenty-one drug users were taken to one of the drug treatment centers and administered a potion called “bong sen” for 10 days before being released to their homes or to the streets. No systematic follow-up was done, and the national drug authority conceded that at least some of those treated returned to drug use.
“No information is known to exist as to the efficacy of this claimed medicine for the detoxification of opiate dependent people, nor to its side effects or interactions with other drugs,” said Graham Shaw, an expert on drug dependence and harm reduction with the World Health Organization in Phnom Penh, in a briefing note in early December.
Like its neighbors, Cambodia has experienced a surge in recent years in the use of methamphetamines, known here and in Thailand as “crazy medicine.” A smaller number of people are heroin users.
Vietnam has a network of drug treatment centers and is reported to be widely using the herbal drug in detoxification treatments. In 2003, Thailand embarked on a “war on drugs” in which an estimated 2,800 people suspected of being dealers were summarily shot and killed.
Apart from the 11 government-run centers, drug users in Cambodia have few places to turn for help with addictions. In some cases, desperate families commit their relatives to the centers, but most former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had been locked up there against their will.
The centers appear to be used not only for drug users but also as a means to clear the streets of vagrants, beggars, prostitutes and the mentally ill, according to Human Rights Watch and the reports of other former detainees.
Government figures for drug use in Cambodia are unreliable and range from about 6,000 to 20,000. The United Nations has estimated that as many as half a million people in Cambodia may be drug users.
In 2008, the National Authority for Combating Drugs reported that 2,382 people were detained in government drug detention centers, almost all of them involuntarily. Some families, with no other recourse, pay the centers to take in relatives for what they hope will be a cold-turkey cure.
“If Cambodian authorities think they are reducing drug dependency through the policy of compulsory detention at these centers, they are wrong,” said the report by Human Rights Watch. “There is no evidence that forced physical exercise, forced labor and forced military drills have any therapeutic benefit whatsoever.”
Like other former detainees, Mr. Tam, 25, an ethnic Vietnamese, said he was committed involuntarily along with other drug users and street people. He confirmed allegations in the report that a number of the detainees were children.
He described what he called the “eight punishments” — painful and humiliating exercises that included rolling shirtless on the ground, running into walls and a series of physical contortions with names like leopard crawl, hopping like a frog, vampire jumping and shooting Rambo.
“I think this is not treatment,” he said. “This is torture.”
As soon as he was released, he said, he resumed his heroin habit.
“Inside, you are thinking of drugs all the time,” he said. “When you come out, you are free to use again.”
Labels: drug, Phnom Penh
» Read more!