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Monday, July 18, 2011

Again, justice for Cambodia

The wheels of justice turn slowly in Cambodia, but they grind nevertheless. Last month, a United Nations-backed tribunal began the second war crimes trials that attempt to hold accountable the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. This trial is proving more contentious than its predecessor — in which the defendant accepted both the legitimacy of the tribunal and the need for an accounting. This time, however, the four defendants remain steadfast in their conviction that they did nothing wrong and that even if they did, the court has no authority over them.

This proceeding will render imperfect justice at best. But it will provide some relief for victims and their families. More significantly, it will send the signal — as do all such prosecutions — that there is no escaping such monstrous acts. The reckoning may come late, but it must be seen to be inevitable.

The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, was set up by the U.N. to try former Khmer Rouge leaders charged with genocide and other war crimes. The court, which has a mix of Cambodian and international judges, along with international prosecutors, was established because of fears that a Cambodian tribunal would be undermined by political interference or sheer incompetence.

Its first trial concluded last year, resulting in the conviction of former prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav, usually referred to as Comrade Duch, for the torture and murder of an estimated 16,000 people; only a handful survived detention in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison he oversaw. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison. But Duch converted to Christianity late in life and accepted the legitimacy of the tribunal and that he committed the deeds in question, but insisted that he was only following orders.

The four defendants in this trial — former head of state Khieu Samphan, 79; former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, 85; his wife, former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, 79; and the chief ideologue of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, 85, — do not acknowledge the authority of the court nor the legal basis of the actions against them. All four defendants claim to be innocent of the charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Three of the four — all save Nuon Chea — argue that a 10-year statute of limitations of the previous Cambodian legal statutes bar their prosecution. Ieng Sary's lawyers claim that prosecution is barred because of double jeopardy: He was tried in absentia by the Vietnamese in 1979 after they drove the Khmer Rouge from power; he was then pardoned by the king of Cambodia when he broke with the Khmer Rouge in 1996. The court is hearing all those claims.

While procedural issues are important to the defendants, the most critical questions surrounding the proceedings are moral and philosophical. First, can there be real justice when trials are held more than three decades after the crimes were committed? Of course, many would say — and we agree — that is precisely the knowledge that there is no escaping justice that gives the law its force and its deterrent effect. Justice delayed is most assuredly not justice denied.

But many counter that proceedings such as these merely reopen old wounds, and threaten to undo the progress that has been made in national reconciliation. It is a powerful argument, but one that is rarely made by the victims. Indeed, the most vocal advocates of moving on tend to be those individuals who have a stake in forgetting.

Thus, the biggest obstacle to additional trials appears to be Prime Minister Hun Sen — a former mid-ranking Khmer Rouge cadre. He is unlikely to be a part of the trial, while other prominent members of the Cambodian elite including his inner circle have questionable pasts. Mr. Hun Sen claims that additional trials risk dividing the country and could be destabilizing.

That is possible but unlikely. The guilty parties are old — the four defendants in the current trial range from 77 to 85 — and unlikely to rally significant forces on their behalf — at least, not if the prime minister does not chose to indulge them.

While justice is the most compelling reason to proceed, there is another equally powerful reason for letting the tribunal go forward: the need to educate the Cambodian people about their past. For years, political tensions dampened attempts to explain and understand Cambodia's past. A generation has come of age in the country that has little knowledge of its history. This may have been expedient, but the failure to understand history or its causes is a dangerous foundation upon which to build a state. Ignorance is the very opposite of reconciliation.

The growing popular interest in the tribunal suggests that the "forgetting school" is wrong. It is estimated that at least 100,000 Cambodians have visited the tribunal since 2005. The 500 seats in the court are fully occupied every day. The hearings are being broadcast live on radio and television.

The Cambodian people understand that they have a stake in their past. That is the foundation of justice.
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New DMZ Created at Thai-Cambodia Border


Cambodian soldiers rest on the ruins of the ancient Preah Vihear temple where a military camp was set up on February 9. Now that the ICJ has ruled the area to be a DMZ, soldiers will no longer be allowed near it. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

The International Court of Justice has ordered Thailand and Cambodia to withdraw their troops from Preah Vihear Temple and its surrounding area, declaring it a demilitarized zone.

The order is to prevent more armed conflict in the border area that has seen attacks from both countries since 2008, when, according to a letter by the Cambodian ambassador to the United Nations, 50 Thai soldiers invaded Cambodian territory near the temple.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has also said that Thailand cannot block Cambodia from accessing the temple or the transport of fresh supplies to nonmilitary personnel.

The ICJ also announced that the two countries should continue working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to settle the dispute.

Last April, 50,000 people had been displaced by the Cambodian-Thai border conflict and there had been many fatal brawls in the region.

Thailand and Cambodia have appealed to the U.N. before and the temple, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, has been damaged in the skirmishes.

In 1962, the ICJ declared the land surrounding and including the temple as all part of Cambodia. Thailand rejects the ruling, arguing that the only convenient road access to the area is from the Thai side of the border.

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CAMBODIA: The challenges of building democratic institutions

Jean Monnet, regarded by most as the founding father of the 27 member European Union, once said, "Nothing is possible without men; nothing is lasting without institutions." That statement has influenced my political thinking over time. I have reflected on Monnet's inferences about 'men' and possibilities, and 'institutions' and longevity. A related concept is represented by a familiar quotation from President John F. Kennedy: "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on."

As I needed for myself a sense of empowerment and of positivity, I inverted Monnet's words to read: "With men and women, nothing is impossible." And I added, "God willing."

Last month in Phnom Penh, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told the Phnom Penh Post of Cambodia's need for "democratic institutions" that benefit everyone in society. A few days ago, the Post printed Cambodian lawmaker Ms. Mu Sochua's article, "A hard road to democracy."

Thus, as I considered what to write for this month's column, my thoughts have focused on Monnet's 'men' and women, too, as sensitive readers reminded me of inclusiveness and on 'institutions.'

Intelligent men and women make things happen. Throughout human history, they have used their capacities to discover, build, change, create and destroy. Some among them are remembered; others are forgotten. Their ideas, vision, and the institutions they created, remain.

Of Institutions An institution comprises groups of men and women working together toward common goals conforming to rules they established for reaching those goals. People create institutions, shape and reform them, live by them and are influenced by them.

Prime Minister Fillon's urging that Cambodians establish 'democratic institutions' requires that Cambodians comprehend what 'democratic' is, and what 'institutions' are. Since the time of Angkor, Khmers have assigned their faith and allegiance to individual god-kings and leaders, not to ideas and concepts.

Ms. Sochua's July 11 column examined the challenges of growing democracy on autocratic soil where the people's interests and needs are superseded by their leaders' personal interest in holding on to power.

Yet, Ms. Sochua expressed pride in the 'light of hope' for democratizing Cambodia that 'shines each time our villagers stand up to defy arrests,' and noted the countryside's 'tightly woven' opposition networks. 'Women' she observed 'take an active part in that grassroots movement.'

That observation is borne out by news photographs I compiled in a YouTube presentation. More than one reader who reviewed the compilation of photos noted the presence of women in protests and activities, an indication Cambodia's fight for rights and equality has begun. Another reader asked, while those female protesters were pushed around and beaten by Hun Sen's security forces where were the men?

The men were there, too, however. One bloodied and unconscious, having tried to present a petition to visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon some yards away; and male villagers with wooden sticks taking on the police who had been ordered to take away their land.

Cambodians are not so placid and their well-known patience has a limit.

Someone said, humans conquer space but never succeed in walking across the street to get to know their neighbours. Humans' inner shortcomings are plenty. Thus, I write often on the importance of acting on the basis of those universal principles and values that have guided the actions of leaders who work for the common good. Those who are motivated by such principles and values can agree on their shared goals and establish rules for attaining them.

As a Cambodian born in a nation of 14 million of whom 95 percent are described as Buddhists, I have found Lord Gautama Buddha's teachings to be an excellent guide for Cambodian leaders who govern the country, and for Cambodian democrats who struggle for rights and freedom in Cambodia. And so, I write continuously on Buddha's teaching.

Actually, Buddha's teaching can help in the building of 'democratic institutions' and the practice of politics, if only men and women choose to learn and follow his advice. Buddha's search for answers to why there's so much pain and suffering endured by the multitude, led to his long journey that ended with his Enlightenment.

Of DemocracyThe Greek word 'Demokratia' ('demos' means people; 'kratia' means government) means 'popular government.' It is a system of government by the people, who exercise their governance indirectly through elected representatives, a system founded on the principles of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal treatment.

Democracy (demokratia) is a system of popular support of government; popular representation (the people elect representatives to act as their voice and protect their interests); popular consultation (the elected officials know people's needs and demands and are responsive to them); political competition (to allow the people to choose from among policies and candidates); political equality (the people can participate and compete for public office); alternation of power (political power rotates and changes hands); majority rule (with minorities' rights protected); and free press (a responsible free press gives facts, raises public awareness, and keep leaders responsive to the people).

In the United States' system of government, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, made clear that a government exists to serve the people who have the right to resist government directives that no longer serve the people's will, and to replace it with a new one.

Thus, Fillon's 'democratic institutions' are institutions that benefit all, inclusively.

Today's Cambodia is far from being democratic. Democratization as a process is not democracy.

Of Leaders and Bureaucracy
Actually, two 'governments' are in existence simultaneously in a democracy.

One is a government of representatives elected by voters, the citizenry, to serve and protect the people's will and interests. In this government, elected leaders stay in power for the terms specified in the Constitution. It is a 'temporary' government: A group of people that governs today, and will rotate its power to another group of people tomorrow. Democratic election winners do not see their victory as permanent, and democratic election losers see the setback as temporary: Today is your turn to govern; tomorrow, mine.

The other government is one that stays permanently in office regardless of which political party is in power. We refer to this government as a bureaucracy, or a civil service. Government cabinet ministries form this bureaucracy. It is a large scale organization of appointed officials, civil servants, and support staff whose major role is to carry out the policies developed by elected officials, the policy decision-makers, and to apply and follow government policy guidelines, laws, and regulations. In a democracy, the military, the police, and the courts are strictly impartial, neutral, and independent, with functions well defined by the Constitution, and are not instruments to serve elected leaders' personal wishes.

In today's Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party rule through fear and intimidation, bribes and deceits. The government in place is in no way illustrative of the concepts represented by the Greek word 'Demokratia.'

Yet, Cambodian democrats should remember that though bureaucrats are technically subordinate to elected or appointed officials, as career governmental personnel and support staff they can, nevertheless, influence their boss's policy decisions in several important ways. They can inject the bureaucracy's perspective and values when they pass on information to the decision-makers; they can provide a recommendation that favors their department's views; and they can shape events by tempering the efficiency with which certain policies are carried out.

Thus, regime opponents should connect with, and persuade Cambodia's bureaucrats to come up with creative measures that can influence Hun Sen's policies to benefit the struggle for freedom – and even to derail what damages the people's interests.

Change is Possible
Buddha says, 'Nothing is permanent,' and that 'Everything changes.' He also teaches, 'He is able who thinks he is able.'

I wrote about Malcolm Gladwell's book, 'The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.' Gladwell posits that 'a bedrock belief that change is possible' is what underlies the 'successful epidemics' that bring change. He said we might think the world around us may seem like 'an immovable, implacable place,' when it actually isn't. He advised, 'With the right kind of impetus … the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.'

"Believe you can and you're halfway there," said President Theodore Roosevelt. "Yes, we can," and Barack Obama became the first non-white American to become president of the most powerful country in the world.

Hun Sen's grip on power may seem irreversible. But it's not. Remember Tunisia. On Dec. 17, 2010, a 26-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, from the hardscrabble town of Sidi Bouzid, some 200 miles south of Tunis, was slapped and beaten by authorities following a disagreement about his permission to sell his fruits. Bouazizi was denied an opportunity to lodge his complaint. In despair and as a protest, he doused himself in paint thinner and lit himself on fire. His self-immolation sparked local riots that spread and turned into a tsunami of revolutionary fervor that sent an autocratic ruler of 23 years, President Ben Ali, fleeing the country. That tsunami keeps dictators near and far guessing until today.

Events, Actions, CircumstancesSome say Cambodia is not Tunisia. Others point to conventional wisdom that sees Cambodians as placid, passive, accepting, and accommodating. There's no Cambodian Bouazizi, they say. Professor Joel Brinkley's "Cambodia's Curse, The Modern History of a Troubled Land" may paint Cambodians as pathetically unable to bring change to their country, a thesis I don't accept. I nevertheless like the book and many things Brinkley said in it. Yet, I maintain that change is not only desirable in Cambodia, it is possible in today's Cambodia under Hun Sen. Some express pessimism because the challenges are steep, but they are not impossible to be overcome.


Ms. Sochua presented some significant statistics about Cambodia: Four million Cambodians live below the poverty line; over a million have lost their homes, their land, and the source of their livelihood to a government that needed their land for economic development; almost a million hectares of land has been given in economic concessions to men and companies with ties to the CPP through 99-year leases.

Visit Khmer websites to see how Cambodian opposition organizations are increasing in number inside and outside the country, offering public forums and training, and with daily public demonstrations here and there – a testimony to the efforts being made to bring change. A video, "Stories of Change," on YouTube shows change is taking place.

I have created and posted on YouTube several PowerPoint presentation comprised of photos of events that occurred in Cambodia, accompanied by Khmer music and songs. I intended the presentations to inform and to educate, and I'm glad some Cambodian and non-Cambodian viewers have written to tell me they found the slide shows informative and educational. Some have asked that I provide written context to describe the photos.

In the presentations viewers can see some photos of what Asian Times Online's Julie Masis, a Cambodia-based journalist, called the "bustling urban metropolis" of Phnom Penh with tall buildings and fast food restaurants marking the rapid rate of economic growth (9 percent annually) over the past decade. Viewers can also see the dark side of this rapid expansion: Forced eviction at Boeng Kak Lake, a community of some 4,000 families, with a giant metal tube pumping sandy water to fill the lake, flooding and burying people's homes; a back hoe pulling down homes, uniformed police with sticks forcing people to lie on the ground while their thatched homes were set on fire.

Last week a ceremony took place at Boeng Kak Lake to inaugurate construction of a 133-hectare housing and commercial project by a firm linked to a senator of Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party. Several hundred families who remained at the Lake continued to fight furiously against their eviction.

The divide between the very rich and the very poor is wide and growing.

In the PowerPoints, viewers can see how increasing arbitrary and oppressive measures by the regime have resulted in some localized rioting, such as in Kompong Speu where 200 villagers with wooden sticks, knives, and slingshots, battled and routed 300 police sent to evict the families from their land. For a people known for their peaceful and accommodating nature to battle police and post a banner under Hun Sen's photo, 'Would die for ricefields,' is revealing of the low ebb of Khmer patience.

As Ms. Mu Sochua said in her Phnom Penh Post column, "The only way to stop those people fighting for justice is for the ruling party to realize that sharing power is a must."

But why should an autocrat accept to share power when he's in complete control? A Cambodian opposition figure said, "Nothing will stop those who want a government that reflects the true will of the people from starting an Arab Spring in Cambodia." The politician viewed Hun Sen's warning that he will close the door and beat the dog as evidence of his past background as a Khmer Rouge commander.

"Work out your own salvation"While I believe events, actions, and circumstances can converge to precipitate a tipping point of change, it seems that unless opponents to Hun Sen's autocratic rule can overlook one another's shortcomings, and unite toward a common goal, the struggle against oppression and for the rights and freedom of the Cambodian people is at risk.
As a United States forefather, Benjamin Franklin, said more than 200 years ago, "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately." Hun Sen has affirmed that he and the ruling CPP will be happy to hang opponents, one by one.

There is an element of desperation in some Cambodians' hope that the international community will insist, at this late date, on the implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accord. In fact it was the warring Khmer factions that disregarded the Accord soon after it was signed. The Accord is a dead letter, and opponents to Hun Sen's autocracy are on their own.

"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may," Buddha told mankind 2,500 years ago. He advised not to rely on others but to "Work out your own salvation."

Thus, Cambodians of different political tendencies must unite, move on steadfastly with their activities, increase pressure on the dictatorship, and believe that nothing is so firmly rooted that it cannot be changed. If the rights spots are pushed at the right time, change will occur.

As Roman philosopher Seneca said more than two thousand years ago, "A kingdom founded on injustice never lasts."


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The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.
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