Avoiding Photo Ops With Cambodia’s Strongman

Posted on November 15, 2012


HONG KONG — President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will visit Southeast Asia this week, promoting American commercial interests in Singapore, reinforcing the U.S. military alliance with Thailand and putting the presidential imprimatur on democratic reforms in Myanmar.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters – Hun Sen, the long-serving prime minister of Cambodia, will play host to a regional summit meeting next week that President Obama is scheduled to attend. A new report recounts decades of human rights abuses in Cambodia.

But their stop in Cambodia for a regional summit meeting next week will be diplomatically stickier: Photo opportunities with Hun Sen, the authoritarian prime minister of Cambodia, will be hard to avoid.

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh said that Mr. Obama and Mr. Hun Sen would hold one-on-one talks during the summit meeting, according to The Cambodia Daily. The public visibility of those talks, however, remains to be seen.

Human Rights Watch, in a report published Tuesday, calls for Mr. Obama to make human rights a forceful centerpiece of his visit to Cambodia, the first ever by a sitting American president. The report says Mr. Hun Sen’s “violent and authoritarian rule over more than two decades has resulted in countless killings and other serious abuses that have gone unpunished.”

The full report, “ ‘Tell Them That I Want to Kill Them’: Two Decades of Impunity in Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” recounts numerous extrajudicial killings of labor leaders, journalists and opposition leaders since 1992.

“The list of political killings over the past 20 years is bone-chilling,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “While there is a public uproar after each case, officials do nothing and there are no consequences for the perpetrators or the government that protects them.”

The full H.R.W. report can be downloaded here. And the group’s summary of the report is here.

As my colleague Peter Baker reported last week, Mrs. Clinton’s trip through the Asia-Pacific region and Mr. Obama’s stops in Southeast Asia are part of “a larger geopolitical chess game by the Obama administration, which has sought to counter rising Chinese assertiveness by engaging its neighbors.”

A leading Cambodian political analyst, Lao Moung Hay, told The Cambodia Daily that Mr. Obama and Mr. Hun Sen would probably focus on security issues in the South China Sea — subtext: China — as well as the reform process in Burma. He said Mr. Obama was not likely to press Mr. Hun Sen on Cambodia’s appalling record on human rights, the wide suppression of political dissent or the forced exile of Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s principal opposition leader.

“This is a new era for Hun Sen,” Lao Moung Hay told Thomas Fuller of the IHT, speaking about the political topography of Cambodia following the death last month of the former king, Norodom Sihanouk. “There is no force to restrain him anymore — there are risks for the country.”

In a recent commentary in The Times, Mr. Rainsy called on Mr. Obama to boycott the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

But the opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua told The Phnom Penh Post, “I’m sure that Obama is quite committed and his language will be very strong” about the government’s alleged abuses.

Mu Sochua said she had pressed for a letter sent recently by five U.S. senators and seven members of Congress to Mr. Obama, urging him to challenge Mr. Hun Sen on an array of human rights issues. The Post called the letter “a damning indictment” of Hun Sen’s regime but also said the message was “thinly sourced.”

Carlyle Thayer, a noted security analyst in the region, told The Post about the lawmakers’ letter:

Be careful what you ask for, because Hun Sen can be tough if he wants to be, and China doesn’t raise those issues, and Cambodia and Hun Sen, they’ve pointed that out repeated times.

Is this a political stunt or do you have a strategy to follow up? Are we going to vote for resolutions in the Senate, are we going to restrict money to the embassy or aid to Cambodia to punish them, to pressure them on human rights? What do you do next?

Land grabs, forced evictions and 99-year leases of state lands to Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese firms have been well-documented by international aid agencies, human rights organizations and Cambodian and Western journalists.

Rendezvous has written about the murder in April of Chut Wutty, a pioneering environmental activist; the government’s suppression of a land dispute that led to the arrest and conviction (on the astonishing charge of secession) of a leading radio journalist, Mam Sonando; and the murder of Hang Serei Oudom, a newspaper reporter investigating illegal logging who was found dead in the trunk of his car at a cashew plantation.

The veteran Times reporter Seth Mydans and the Magnum photographer John Vink have both reported deeply and extensively about forced evictions, especially in Phnom Penh, a campaign against poor landholders so odious that it caused the World Bank to suspend loans to Cambodia. And Amnesty International last year published a harrowing account of five Cambodian women forced off their land.

“Instead of prosecuting officials responsible for killings and other serious abuses, Prime Minister Hun Sen has promoted and rewarded them,” said the new Human Rights Watch report. “The message to Cambodians is that even well-known killers are above the law if they have protection from the country’s political and military leaders. Donor governments, instead of pressing for accountability, have adopted a business-as-usual approach.”

Mr. Hun Sen, 60, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who changed allegiances, has run Cambodia for the better part of three decades, becoming one of the world’s longest-serving autocrats and a member of the “10,000 Club.”

Mr. Adams, a former United Nations lawyer, said Mr. Hun Sen is one of “a group of strongmen who through politically motivated violence, control of the security forces, massive corruption and the tacit support of foreign powers have been able to remain in power for 10,000 days.”

Mr. Adams, in an op-ed piece in May, quoted Mr. Hun Sen’s response to the possibility of an Arab Spring-style rebellion in Cambodia: “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead … and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”

What would you say is Mr. Obama’s best diplomatic posture in Cambodia? Should he press Hun Sen hard on human rights abuses and risk pushing Cambodia closer to China? Or should he downplay these issues in an attempt to enlist Cambodia among the countries in the region that might oppose a rising and more aggressive China?

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Mark McDonald

NGOs Harassed Ahead of Summit

Cambodia clamps down on dissent in the capital as part of preparations for the ASEAN Summit.

>> Cambodia Arrests 8 for Eviction Protest Ahead of Obama Visit
>> Intimidation of Civil Society Groups Continues Before Summits

A Cambodian girl paints ‘SOS’ under a portrait of US President Barack Obama on the roof next to the Phnom Penh International Airport, Nov. 14, 2012. – AFP

Cambodian authorities have disrupted several events held by nongovernmental organizations and have threatened to arrest anyone holding protests ahead of sensitive regional summits to be held in the capital Phnom Penh, rights groups said Wednesday.

The Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA) said authorities in Meanchey district forced the owner of a local restaurant to shut down the meeting space he had rented to a group of NGOs ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit from Nov 18 to 20.

Top leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, will attend the meetings.

Ngoung Mongtha, an IDEA official, told RFA’s Khmer service that hundreds of NGO officials met on Wednesday morning to discuss requests for a petition the group planned to submit to leaders of the 10-member ASEAN body during the summit.

Cambodia is the current chair of ASEAN, which also includes member states Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

“More than 300 officials were forced to leave on Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. The owner of the building they had rented shut off the electricity and forced them out,” Ngoung Mongtha said.

“The owner was pressured by local authorities. Three police officers were present at the meeting and later a police officer asked the NGO staffers to end their discussion.”

According to reports, authorities had warned the restaurant owner of possible consequences if “a grenade attack” occurred during the NGO meeting.

Vorn Pov, IDEA president, said that the NGOs had been meeting to discuss 12 separate topics, without providing details. He said the NGO officials now plan to meet in a variety of different locations around Phnom Penh to continue their discussions.

At least 50 villagers from various provinces around Cambodia that had traveled to the capital to support the petition bid through protests during the ASEAN Summit were also kicked out of a local guesthouse early on Wednesday, Vorn Pov said.

Lor Lyno, the police chief of nearby Chak Angre Krom commune, said he had not prevented the meeting from taking place.

“I didn’t stop the meeting,” he said, when contacted by phone.

Venues canceled

Reports of the alleged intimidation of the NGOs in the capital on Wednesday came as another civil society organization expressed concerns that authorities in Phnom Penh had prevented two earlier NGO events planned in connection with the upcoming ASEAN Summit.

The Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said Cambodian authorities were “repeatedly disturbing” the organization of the ASEAN People’s Forum 2012 in the capital, which had been planned for Nov. 14-16.

“The venues that the [APF] committee booked for the event have been canceled by the owners on two occasions due to pressure from the Cambodian authorities,” the statement said.

“The Committee has been exploring other potential venues to host the event, however members are deeply concerned and frustrated at the continued disruption by the authorities,” it said, adding that APF workshops had been similarly harassed in March.

The CCHR said that the opening ceremony of a sister event—the ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly—had ended “prematurely” on Tuesday after the venue owner refused to sell food or drinks to participants and turned off the site’s electricity.

Reports said that some 2,000 participants had gathered for the Tuesday event.

Event organizers said that the restaurant owner was “pressured by the local authorities to cancel the event” and that workshops scheduled for Wednesday as part of the four-day assembly had also been canceled by the venue owner “at the last minute.”

The group also cited a Monday report by Cambodia Express Newswhich said that a spokesman from the Phnom Penh municipal government had warned activists involved in land dispute cases that the authorities would “arrest any protesters during the ASEAN Summit.”

Authorities have said they will deploy around 10,000 police officers during the ASEAN meeting, during which time demonstrations will be prohibited and universities located close to where ASEAN delegates will travel will be ordered to close.

“The above actions of the Cambodian authorities are in violation of the right to freedom of assembly,” the CCHR said.

“The actions also run contrary to Article 1 of the ASEAN Charter, which states that all ASEAN members must ‘promote a people-orientated ASEAN in which all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building.”

As the current chair of ASEAN, Cambodia is eager to avoid a second gaffe after an unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July over the region’s dispute with Beijing on overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Some diplomats from ASEAN had charged that Cambodia was influenced by its giant ally China not to incorporate the views of ASEAN member states the Philippines and Vietnam in the statement, causing an impasse at the meeting.


Stop disrupting civil society events and restricting freedom of expression and assembly ahead of ASEAN Summit

We, the undersigned civil society organizations, (see list of signatories below) strongly urge the Cambodian authorities to immediately end the ongoing intimidation, threats and harassment of organizers, venue owners and participants involved in civil society events in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh ahead of the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the 7th East Asia Summit. We strongly urge the Cambodian authorities to respect the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly in accordance with their constitutional and international obligations, in particularly in view of rising concern that it will heighten its crackdown on these fundamental freedoms ahead of the two summits.

Since 12 November 2012, civil society groups from Cambodia and throughout the ASEAN region have converged in Phnom Penh for a series of workshops and other activities, held under the banner of two main civil society events: the ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly (AGPA) and the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF), both timed to coincide with the upcoming ASEAN Summit from 18 to 20 November 2012.

On 13 November 2012, the opening ceremony of AGPA, which was held at a restaurant and attended by over 1,500 people, was disrupted when electricity supply to the venue was cut off. The restaurant owner had apparently been pressured by the local authorities to cancel the event. Venues for some AGPA workshops scheduled to begin on 14 November 2012 were also cancelled at the last minute, despite agreements, rental deposits and other necessary requirements being in place. In addition, over 250 AGPA participants have also been turned away by some guesthouses in Phnom Penh, ostensibly due to threats by local authorities who have been seen harassing owners of several guesthouses where these participants are staying.

Furthermore, notification by the organizers to hold a rally on 16 November 2012 to submit demands to the Cambodian government as the Chair of ASEAN was refused by the Phnom Penh Municipality and Ministry of Interior. The government has also warned that the authorities would arrest anybody who participates in public protests during the ASEAN Summit.

The other civil society-organized event, the ACSC/APF, scheduled to be held on 14-16 November, also faced similar obstructions by the authorities. The organizers of this event have had their venues cancelled on two successive occasions following pressure from local authorities.

This is not the first time that the Cambodian authorities have employed harassment and intimidation tactics to disrupt ASEAN civil society-organized events on a mass scale. Earlier this year, several workshops at the ACSC/APF in March, held to coincide with the 20th ASEAN Summit, were also stopped by the authorities.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Cambodian government is legally obliged to respect the right to freedoms of expression and assembly, which are also enshrined in the Cambodian’s Constitution.

We strongly urge the Cambodian government to immediately halt all forms of action that restrict and disrupt any of the events organized by civil society, including peaceful public assemblies, in the run up to the ASEAN Summit, consistent with Cambodia’s international legal obligations. Continued efforts to restrict and disrupt any of these events in the coming days will not only seriously worsen the already dismal human rights record of the Cambodian government, but also make a mockery of Cambodia’s commitment, as an ASEAN member state, to “promote a people-oriented ASEAN in which all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building”, as enshrined in the ASEAN Charter.


Endorsed by:

1. Acehnese Civil Society Task Force (ACSTF)

2. ALTSEAN-Burma

3. Amnesty International

4. Anjanee

5. Arus Pelangi

6. ASEAN Watch, Thailand

7. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)


9. Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)

10. Action for Gender and Ecological Justice (AKSI)

11. Amnesty International

12. ASEAN Disability Forum (ADF)

13. Bank Information Centre (BIC)

14. Burma Partnership (BP)

15. Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF)

16. The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)

17. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)

18. The Cambodia Youth Indigenous Association (CIYA)

19. Coalition to Abolish Modern-day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA)

20. Community Legal Education Centre

21. Community Management Centre (CMC)

22. DEMA Malaysia

23. Dignity International

24. ELSAM Papua

25. Equitable Cambodia

26. Focus on the Global South

27. FONGTIL – The NGO Forum of Timor-Leste

28. Forum LGBTIQ Indonesia

29. FOR SOGI (Thailand)

30. Foundation for Education and Development (FED)

31. Her Lounge

32. Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF)

33. Human Rights Watch

34. IMPARSIAL – The Indonesian Human Rights Monitor

35. Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)

36. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC)

37. Indigenous Peoples Task Force (IPTF)

38. Indonesia for Humans

39. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)

40. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

41. Institute for Essential Services Reform (IESR), Indonesia

42. Justice for Sisters

43. Land Reform Chiang Mai

44. Lembaga Bantuan Hukum (LBH) Yogyakarta

45. Migrant Forum in Asia

46. Nationalities Youth Forum

47. People’s Empowerment Foundation

48. People Like Us (PLU)

49. Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA)

50. Philwomen on ASEAN

51. Rainbow Rights Project Inc.

52. Sahmakum Teang Tnaut

53. SAMIN Indonesia

54. Sayoni

55. Seksualiti Merdeka

56. Southeast Asia Committee for Advocacy (SEACA)

57. Solidaritas Perempuan

58. Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN

59. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)

60. Task Force Detainees Philippines (TFDP)

61. Taxi Network Thailand

62. Thai Transgender Alliance

63. Thai Volunteer Service (TVS)

64. The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS)

65. Think Centre

66. Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA)

67. Disabled Persons International (Asia-Pacific)

68. Peace and Conflict Studies Center (National University of Timor-Leste)

69. People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF)

70. Urban Community Mission Jakarta

71. WALHI (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia)

72. Women’s Legal and Human Rights Bureau, Inc. (WLHRB)