CAMBODIA: Cambodian activists must believe in individuals’ capacity to accomplish the impossible

FOR PUBLICATION
AHRC-ETC-038-2012
December 1, 2012

An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

CAMBODIA: Cambodian activists must believe in individuals’ capacity to accomplish the impossible

Initially, I planned to write about US President Barack Obama’s visit to Cambodia, during which he reportedly spoke forcefully to Cambodian premier Hun Sen regarding the administration’s abysmal record of human rights violations. But e-mails from Cambodians in the country and abroad reoriented my focus, hence, today’s article.

Don’t like to read

Last week, a young political science graduate from a foreign university vented his frustrations in an e-mail from Cambodia at many Cambodian compatriots who don’t like to read. If they don’t read, they don’t learn. And if reading articles is painful, they certainly won’t read an entire book!

He observed with frustration that there is no learning without reading, and life is not meaningful if one has no basis to compare, to understand, to improve. He dismissed suggestions that there is a dearth of reading material available in Cambodia. Cambodia, he said, lacks people who want to read. Across the oceans I can sense his irritation– vexations of a young man who has put hours of hard work into a second language, to earn a degree from a reputable university. Now, back in his homeland, he is working to sensitize his relatives, friends, and colleagues to value education as a key to personal and national development. I have never met this young man. He sought me out through the Internet when he was a student. We discussed political socialization and political culture as he considered ways to bring about change to Cambodia’s status quo and to better serve society.

Still young, must think of living longer

A few days ago, he wrote about the low price growers received for their rice harvest. This has negatively affected his parents’ livelihood. As a result he may have to forego advanced studies and continue working so that his four siblings may finish their education in Cambodia.

Nevertheless, this young man remains committed to improving governance in Cambodia. To that end, he attended a recent workshop in Phnom Penh on the topic of governance and reform. He was disheartened by this meeting of “civil servants, military, police and royal armed forces” personnel. They rejected the need for adherence to the rule of law by a politically impartial police and military, blindly citing the regime’s party line in support of that position. During the coffee break, some told him that he is an “extremist,” that he is still “too young and still has a long time to live”; they advised him to be careful and live longer!

I have been made aware of this kind of threat and intimidation before – orchestrated accidents that take lives. Some incidents like the story of an armored vehicle from a security unit deliberately hitting a driver who had exited his vehicle at a security checkpoint. The driver was hospitalized for three months as a result. Other Cambodians relate stories of food poisoning and break-ins, among other violations.

Human Rights Watch published a 68-page report, Tell Them That I Want to Kill Them: Two Decades of Impunity in Hun Sen’s Cambodia. It describes cases of unsolved killings of more than 300 political activists, journalists, opposition politicians, among others by Hun Sen’s security forces since the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements. It identifies many senior Cambodian government officials involved in serious abuses and their current positions in the administration.

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