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Sunday, January 22, 2012

In the Year of the Dragon, stop torture

By Karen Tse, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Karen Tse Karen Tse is a human rights lawyer, Unitarian Universalist minister and former San Francisco public defender who founded International Bridges to Justice. Tse spoke at the TED Global conference in July in Edinburgh, Scotland. TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website
Geneva, Switzerland (CNN) -- The dragon is the Chinese counterpart of the phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction. And as we bring in the Year of the Dragon Monday, the most important of the years in the Chinese Zodiac, let's consider a great opportunity -- and an awe-inspiring responsibility -- to create an ethical world together.

The challenge we must face: Every day, throughout the world, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters are arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied access to counsel and basic due process rights -- causing untold human suffering, perpetuating patterns of violence and impunity, and sapping vast economic potential.

We may think of torture as a last-resort instrument of authoritarian regimes or rogue groups to extract information from political prisoners, But torture is a much more common occurrence than that.

More than 100 countries -- including some we describe as democratic -- practice some sort of torture, often on a massive scale, and most of the tortured are not even political prisoners. Torture is actually used most of the time just because it is the cheapest form of investigation, less expensive than building a proper legal system. What's the right thing to do?

In the midst of this crisis exists an urgent opportunity. Of the 113 developing countries that, according to our database, practice torture, 93 have taken a strong first step in favor of human rights by signing international conventions and adopting domestic laws that safeguard the rights of ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, many of these laws remain unenforced due to a lack of trained lawyers, a lack of awareness of what respect for human rights really means, and a lack of resources to turn the situation around. These critical gaps allow entirely preventable human rights violations to occur over and over again, despite a legal framework being in place and governments being willing to accept international support.

I first came to this realization in 1994 when I walked into a prison in Cambodia and met a 12-year- old boy who was tortured and denied counsel -- for stealing a bicycle. Over time, I came to realize that the vast majority of torture cases actually happen to everyday citizens throughout the world and not to political prisoners.

And yet the global community spends the majority of its efforts on political prisoners and on punitive measures as opposed to preventive measures that create positive change.

Suddenly, when I looked into that Cambodian boy's eyes, it became clear: Precisely because he was not a political prisoner, the Cambodian government had no interest in the boy, for better or worse. This was the way the police did their work. They didn't need to build a case based on evidence; they roughed up the suspects to get a confession.

Thus, we recognized the opportunity to help him, and the many thousands like him throughout the world. This is the mission of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), which was born 12 years ago, in the last Year of the Dragon. The global power shift

In those years, defenders from throughout the world have joined our cause, seeking justice for the poorest of the poor, training local officials, and literally defending life and human dignity. From China to Zimbabwe, from India to Burundi, we see the seeds of justice starting to grow.

Our starting point is not instances of torture and broken legal systems. We focus instead on the attainment of functioning courthouses, competent police officers, trained legal defenders, resulting in ordinary citizens everywhere encountering justice rather than brutality.

Our challenge is to breathe life into existing legal frameworks, to stop investigative torture before it occurs, and to create a culture where the rule of law and respect for due process and human rights is the norm.
Yes, this sounds incredible. Many would say it is simply not possible. Yet in in the country where I first encountered the 12-year-old tortured boy, IBJ today now represents indigent defendants in 13 out of Cambodia's 24 provinces.

In those provinces where IBJ has its legal aid centers, investigative torture today is virtually eliminated, a dramatic turnaround from a culture of abuse and impunity in a few short years' time. Cambodia's government has asked IBJ to work on helping to build a legal aid system. We trained the police, we empowered the defense lawyers, we raised the population's awareness -- and where we work, torture is now the exception and not the rule.

Imagine a 36-year-old Sri Lankan woman, held in pretrial detention for nine years. Only after an IBJ lawyer intervened did she regain her freedom and see her children again. And this story is one of the least unpleasant ones. At least she had not been severely tortured, raped or abused.

Despite overwhelming challenges, courageous defenders are having the prophetic imagination to see a world without abuse and torture and are fashioning this hope into reality. They are enabling their countries to rise from the ashes of destruction by rebuilding stable societies through the safeguards of their legal system.

For the latter half of the 20th century, as human rights became an important factor in international relations, activists played an excellent role in raising awareness of problems. But we've reached a point where there is only so much that this can accomplish. If we learn about abuses and only prosecute abuse after the fact, what good does that do?

Instead of optimizing the approach by doing the same thing only a bit more effectively, we need to innovate -- that is, we need to do something new entirely. We can't play the game by the rule of the tormentors, whereby they torture and we decry. We won't always lose, but we'll never win.

We need to act before the torture happens in the first place. A shift is taking place toward upholding human rights through legal rights -- using the infrastructure of the public justice system to ensure that basic protections are upheld. The payoff is preventing abuse, rather than exposing mistreatment and prosecuting after the fact. Just having a lawyer supervise the process of a suspect's detainment puts police and prosecutors on notice that they are being watched not just by a defender, but by society at large.

There was a time when it was impossible to imagine a world without polio. There was a time when it was impossible to imagine the abolition of apartheid. But that did not stop those who believed in a better world, and I believe we can stop the use of investigative torture in the 21st century. The time is now.
We are the Dragon.

We are the Game.
Let us rise up from the ashes of destruction and create our ethical future together. Read more!

Cambodia evictions continue unchecked

In the most recent manifestation of an old injustice, 300 families were forced from their homes in a central slum.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In fast-developing Phnom Penh, land is at a premium, and it's the poor who pay the price for high-end development.

It is not a new story. Around 250,000 Cambodians were evicted from their homes between 2005 and 2009, according to local human-rights groups.

And the trend continues to gather steam, despite a high-profile case last year in which the international community got involved, if only for a moment. In 2011, the World Bank froze loans to Cambodia after 20,000 families were faced with forced eviction.

But even the freeze, which stands today, hasn't stemmed the tide of evictions. The government continues to favor major development firms over the poor Cambodian majority.

In the most recent case, a major development company, Phan Imex, bulldozed the modest slum homes of 300 families in a neighborhood called Borei Keila in the capital Phnom Penh.

Anatomy of a forced eviction
Hundreds of Borei Keila residents fought against armed riot police with Molotov cocktails and rocks in a battle that began in the early morning of Jan. 3, and continued for hours with many injuries on both sides. Eight protesters were arrested in the fray, and remain in prison as of this writing.

The next day, evictees took to the streets, protesting outside international embassies for help.

“We thought we were dead,” said one woman with a recent wound on her face. She said she was sleeping in her Borei Keila apartment when bulldozers began to knock it down.

“We were not able to get anything out of the house — this is all I have, a krama [a Cambodian scarf] and some dirty clothes,” she said.

Most of the evictees wanted to remain anonymous, concerned about possible government backlash.

Their complaint?
Phan Imex had promised to build 10 new apartment buildings for 1,776 residents to replace the demolished homes, in a deal reached with villagers and the government in 2003. But Phan Imex announced in 2010 that it could only afford to build eight buildings, leaving 300 families in the lurch.

The left-out families were offered plots of land in two relocation sites instead of finished apartments. The sites, mind you, more closely resemble desolate refugee camps. Confused children, far away from the schools, roam in packs. Their families scramble to build shelters to keep off the sun, and keep out the mosquitoes.

Protesters weren’t safe from the law either: 30 women and children, peacefully protesting in downtown Phnom Penh on Jan. 11, were thrown into vans and sent to a detention center. Held without charge, the government claimed the women and children were being kept to “to figure out their real needs and intentions."
Of these, 20 of the detained women and children staged a dramatic escape on Jan. 18, climbing over the walls as security personnel looked on, taking tuk-tuks to a local NGO, the Housing Rights Task Force.
More from GlobalPost: Cambodia pushes out the poor

"This eviction shows once again that Cambodia's political and economic elite can operate with absolute impunity, without regard to the law," said Tim Malay, president of the Cambodia Youth Network, condemning the evictions in a press release.

As of last week, 100 families were living at one of the relocation sites, Phnom Bat, which is about 35 miles from the center of the capital. But Phan Imex has formally recognized only 60 families as having claim to a plot of land there, which leaves the other 40 vulnerable to potential future eviction.

The company has demanded petitioners for plots present residence documents and be "recognized" by a local authority. But finding the right documents and getting recognition is proving hard for some evictees. Many lost their paperwork when their homes were destroyed.

"The company [Phan Imex] is fully supported by the governor and the head of the government," said opposition lawmaker and human-rights activist Mu Sochua of the evictions. "There is total silence from their part, while the company calls the shots. This is total lack of accountability."

What can former residents of Borei Keila expect?

"The only thing the future holds for these Borei Keila families is the desperation of dispossession that affects a rapidly growing number of Cambodians who have been forced off their land," said Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson.

"There is no better way to abuse a person's economic, social and cultural rights than to strip them of the land where they have resided for generations," he added.

When the World Bank got involved

The Borei Keila evictees face a situation similar to that of the Boueng Lake evictees, who made headlines in 2010 and 2011 as they waged their own battle against Shukaku Inc, a development company headed by a senator from the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

As Shukaku pumped sandy sludge into the inner-city lake and the homes surrounding it to make way for high-end development projects, around 20,000 families were faced with forced eviction.

Some families accepted inadequate compensation for their homes and left, but many did not. In response to the evictions, the World Bank froze loans to Cambodia in August of last year, a freeze that has yet to be lifted.

In response to the freeze, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen awarded 12.44 hectares of residential land to villagers displaced by Shukaku Inc, and over 500 plots have been awarded to date, although protests and disputes continue.

One Boeung Kak evictee, Kun Chantha, joined in the Borei Keila protests this month outside the US Embassy.

“I want you to go back and ask Phan Imex what else they want from you,” a passionate Chantha told the crowd, who stood in the hot sun, largely ignored by Embassy staffers who passed in and out of the heavily fortified gates.

“Give everything to them ...” she said. “Even if you are naked, you shouldn’t be ashamed. The people who should be ashamed are the government.”

How widespread are forced evictions?

Despite the high-profile World Bank freeze, land-grabs and evictions still take place distressingly often, as the government doles out land concessions to rubber, mining, tourism and agriculture firms.

According to a recent USAID report, 7 percent of Cambodia's land outside protected areas has been granted to private firms for agro-industrial plantations.

These concessions have been made at the expense of the average Cambodian: according to the report, landlessness has been on the rise since the late 1990s, and as of 2009, an estimated 20 to 40 percent of rural households had no formal title to their property.

Cambodian law dictates that land can be taken from individuals if it's in the public interest, but the law also says the government has to pay the market value of the land in compensation to evictees, a stipulation that's rarely honored.

The reality of relocation

Evictees face hard lives at relocation sites.

There are no bathrooms, medical care is far-off, and water quality is poor. NGOs are forced to drop off food and medical supplies. Most of the men are in the city, trying to eke out a living far from their families.

A recent survey of 195 relocated or land-threatened people, conducted by local NGO Housing Rights Task Force, came back with distressing results.

More than two-thirds of households in relocated areas were over $869 in debt (in a nation where per capita gross domestic product stands at only $830 a year), while 35.7 percent of relocated people are unemployed, in comparison to 18.4 percent prior to the forced move.

Evictees vie for global spotlight

Despite protests and local media attention, the international community has paid little mind to the plight of Borei Keila residents, or to Cambodian land-grabbing issues in general.

Many feel that sweeping international action is the only way to get government attention — and specific action at that.

On Wednesday, four people protesting a local land grab were shot in Snuol, in southern Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has condemned the shootings, perpetrated by private security guards, but whether they will be brought to justice remains to be seen.

"The Cambodian government only responds to a mixture of embarrassment and fear of losing development projects," said Robertson of Human Rights Watch. "The international community has to continue to demonstrate the political will to confront these abuses whenever and wherever they occur."

But as January drags on, relocation sites fill up, and 8 Borei Keila protesters languish in prison, no condemnations like the World Bank loan freeze are forthcoming.

As one evictee said outside the US embassy, "Only the poor help the poor. The rich and powerful would never dare to come here to help us."

Sek Sokunroth (Alex) contributed reporting to this story. Read more!

Ancient Cambodian temple stirs to life

By Associated Press ..BANTEAY CHHMAR, Cambodia — It's still entwined in mystery and jungle vines, but one of Cambodia's grandest monuments is slowly awakening after eight centuries of isolated slumber, having attracted a crack archaeological team and a trickle of tourists.

A Cambodian boy leans against one of the mythical
 figures that guard the approaches to Banteay Chhmar,
 an 800-year-old temple from the days of the great Angkorian Empire.
“It takes awhile to unfold this temple — and everywhere there are enticements,” says John Sanday, the team leader, as he navigates through tangled undergrowth, past dramatic towers and bas-reliefs and into dark chambers of the haunting monastic complex of Banteay Chhmar.
What drove Jayavarman VII, regarded as the greatest king of the Angkorian Empire, to erect this vast Buddhist temple about 105 miles from his capital in Angkor and in one of the most desolate and driest places in Cambodia remains one of its many unsolved riddles.

At its height in the 12th century, the empire extended over much of Southeast Asia, its rulers engaging in a building frenzy that produced some of the world's greatest religious monuments.

Called the “second Angkor Wat,” Banteay Chhmar approaches it in size, is more frozen in time than the manicured and made-over superstar, and has so far been spared the blights of mass tourism of recent years at Angkor.

In 2011, an average of 7,000 tourists a day visited Angkor, one of Asia's top tourist draws located near the booming northwestern city of Siem Reap. Banteay Chhmar saw an average of two a day, with no tour buses and bullhorn-wielding guides to disturb the temple's total tranquillity or traditional life in the surrounding village.

Abandoned for centuries, then cut off from the world by the murderous Khmer Rouge and a civil war, Banteay Chhmar didn't welcome visitors until 2007 when the last mines were cleared and the looting that plagued the defenseless temple in the 1990s was largely halted.

A year later, the California-based Global Heritage Fund began work at the site under the overall control of the country's Ministry of Culture and now spends about $200,000 a year on the project.

Sanday, a veteran British conservation architect, assembled a team of 60 experts and workers, some of whom were with him on an earlier restoration of the Preah Khan temple at Angkor. Others were recruited from the surrounding community and although barely literate, Sanday says they're among the best he's worked with in Asia.

Challenging them are hundreds of thousands of stone blocks from collapsed shrines and galleries scattered helter-skelter within the 4.6-square-mile archaeological site. Towers teeter, massive tree roots burrow into walls, vegetation chokes a wide moat girding the temple.

Three-quarters of the bas reliefs — rarely found at other Angkorian temples — have fallen or been looted, the most notable being eight panels depicting Avalokiteshvara, an enlightened being embodying Buddhist compassion.

Thieves sheared off four panels with jackhammers, smuggling them into nearby Thailand where two are widely believed to be decorating the garden of a Thai politician. A pair has been recovered and the others are still at the temple, although only two still stand.

“We've been struggling away with this gallery for nearly two years now,” says Sanday at another bas-relief, one depicting a figure believed to be Jayavarman VII leading his troops into battle. In vivid detail, the ancient sandstone wall springs to life with charging war elephants, soldiers plunging spears into their enemies and crocodiles gobbling up the dead.

Nature and time have proved the culprits: the vaulting protecting the 98-foot relief collapsed, exposing the wall to monsoon torrents, which seeped downward to wash away the masonry and loosen the foundations. Pressure from the weight above toppled sections of the wall or forced it to lean.

“He's going to have to come down,” says the 68-year-old architect of the king's image. A section of the wall is angled dangerously outward, he explains, so it must be dismantled, the foundations reinforced and the sandstone blocks meticulously numbered, charted, then set back into place.

Nearby, two young Cambodian computer whizzes are pioneering a shortcut to the reassembly process through three-dimensional imaging. The work-in-progress is one of the temple's 34 towers recently damaged in a severe storm.

Some 700 stone blocks from the tower have been removed or collected from where they fell and each one will be videographed from every angle. Since like a human fingerprint, no stone is exactly alike, still-to-be-finalized software should be able to fit all the blocks into their original alignment after they are repaired.

“We hope that with one push of the button all the stones will jump into place to solve what we are calling ‘John's puzzle,'” says Sanday.

When an original block has gone missing or is beyond repair, either an original stone from elsewhere on the site is used or, as a last resort, a new stone will be inserted.

“My philosophy is to preserve and present the monuments as I found them for future generations without falsifying their history. So often people tend to guess what was there,” he says.

The Global Heritage Fund, he says, is also intent on involving the community. “We can't protect Banteay Chhmar. They have to be the protectors. So they must gain some revenue from the temple,” Sanday says.

The Community Based Tourism group, which the fund supports, is training locals to become guides and devising ways to derive more income from tourism, part of which is funneled into betterment of the entire village.

Sanday and local organizers, however, hope Banteay Chhmar's remote location will spare it from a mass tourist influx. Thus he is not keen to have it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, something the Cambodian government is pushing for.

“I often come here in the late afternoons, when the birds come alive and a breeze stirs,” Sanday says as fading sun rays, filtered through the green canopy, dapple the gray, weathered stones. “It's peaceful and quiet here, like it used to be at Angkor. This is a real site.”

If you go

Banteay Chhmar

Ancient Cambodian monument: There are no hotels, but Community Based Tourism runs six modest, clean homestays in Banteay Chhmar village, also arranging meals and tours. Rooms cost $7 a night. Details and contact information at 

Getting there: Located about 105 miles from Angkor. Cars can be hired in nearby Siem Reap, site of an international airport, for the drive to Banteay Chhmar.

When to go: November through February are the cool, sunny months followed by scorching heat and then monsoon rains when some roads to Banteay Chhmar become impassable.

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Lion dances performed in Cambodia to celebrate Chinese New Year

PHNOM PENH, Jan. 22 (Xinhua) -- Chinese traditional lion and dragon dances have begun performances in Cambodia on Sunday to celebrate coming Lunar New Year, which falls on Jan. 23.

The dances started from the Royal Palace, then to the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh before going elsewhere across the country.

The six groups of lion and dragon dances from the Chinese community in Cambodia had performed at the Royal Palace to bless Cambodia with happiness and prosperity in the New Year, Lao Shi Heng, vice-president of Chinese Association in Cambodia, said.

The groups were welcomed by Kuy Sophal, senior minister in charge of public affairs at the Royal Palace.

Later, at the Chinese Embassy, the groups were greeted by the ambassador Pan Guangxue.

"The Lunar New Year is the most important festival in China," he said, adding that it marked the end of the winter and the start of the spring.

The ambassador has also hailed overseas Chinese for promoting Chinese custom and tradition in Cambodia.

"May the Year of the Dragon bring luck, fortune and prosperity to China and the world," he said.

Traditionally, lion dance is invited by Chinese families to perform as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Spring Festival and to ward off bad luck and evil spirits.

Chinese New Year is one of the largest festivals in Cambodia, up to 80 percent of Cambodian people celebrate it every year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a public speech in last January.

According to the figures from the Chinese Association in Cambodia, there are some 700,000 Chinese descendants living in Cambodia.
Read more!