Is Cambodia Slipping Back To Rogue State Status?

A new law designed to crack down on NGOs is one of several signs that Cambodia is edging back toward authoritarianism nearly two decades after the UN stepped in following brutal civil wars. The international community, by turning a blind eye to government

Rural residents in Siem Raep Province, Cambodia
Rural residents in Siem Raep Province, Cambodia
Angélique Mounier-Kuhn

Is Cambodia about to become an autocratic and corrupted state like the Arab regimes whose governments have recently faced popular uprisings? The question is suddenly very real in the face of increasing concerns about Cambodia's human rights record.

"The UN's goal was to bring democracy, but the country is now about to become a totalitarian state," says an anonymous representative for a human rights NGO. When the UN organized elections in Cambodia in 1993 after a long and cruel civil war, the experience was described as a historical success. Democracy returned to a country long subjected to a series of dictatorships. A vibrant civilian society was developing in a country that suddenly had a younger look and feel.

Cambodia seemed to be heading in a positive direction, even as its two-headed government – led by Prince Ranariddh, who won the election, and the "second Prime Minister," Mr. Hun Sen – showed signs that the old authoritarian habits were holding on. Almost 20 years later, the official report is disappointing. The country has been progressively destroyed, and the democratic progress erased.

A very rich and arrogant elite has emerged, crowded around Hu Sen and his family. Hu Sen ousted Ranariddh from power after a takeover in 1997. Then, he won the 1998, 2003 and 2008 elections. The elite lives off its privileges and its lofty titles. "It can be described as a rogue state, but you can't say it out loud," says another local observer.

The cornerstone of this autocratic system is a judiciary system that is totally controlled by the government. "The courts are so pathetic they don't even deserve to be called a judiciary system. They belong to the Cambodian People's Party (Prime Minister Hu Sen's party). It is almost impossible to win a trial if you don't have the Party on your side," says Philip Robertson, who covers Cambodia for Human Rights Watch, an international human's rights organisation.

The issue of forced expropriations of peasant farms is the best example of inequality before the law. After the era of the Khmer rouge (the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979), lands were controlled depending on varying circumstances. In 2001, a law gave ownership rights to people – often peasants – who actively used a given plot for agricultural purposes. But this law has not prevented private firms from using the army to chase peasants away from their lands to develop rubber or sugar cane plantations.

Staggering conflicts

"When the victims lay charges against a powerful person, judges don't pay attention. But when private firms complain, judges and prosecutors are quick to react," says a Cambodian activist.

Conflicts of interests can sometimes be staggering. For instance, one senator who is a prime minister's close friend wins a plot of land thanks to the army's support, then takes advantage of a law voted by the Lower House of Parliament that guarantees financial help to the project.

Last May, Christophe Peschoux, a representative in Cambodia for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had to flee Cambodia after the prime minister asked governmental organizations not to cooperate with him. What mistake did he make?

"He understood the situation very well. Like his predecessors, he was criticized and insulted by Hu Jen because he spoke out about what was really going on," said Son Soubert, a former member of the Constitutional Council.

A new government law about supervision of local and international NGOs will allow the government to strictly control their activities. Under the law, authorities can check NGO accounts and even refuse them operating licences.

Many Cambodian human rights activists think the international community is to blame for the breakdown of the legally constituted state. Half the Cambodian budget comes from donations and loans from foreign countries, they point out. The European Union, furthermore, imports sugar cane produced on plantations that in some cases were expropriated from peasants under questionable circumstances.

"These donations may reinforce the status quo," says Ou Virak, director of a group called the Cambodian Coordination for Human Rights. "The donating countries shouldn't keep financing the state's missions just because Cambodia is said to be a failed state."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Amber de Bruin

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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