"In Cambodia, 'democracy' is just a term . . ."

Apr 11, 2017

Phnom Penh-based human rights lawyer Sophorn Sek discusses the state of his nation's governance in this eye-opening interview. From corruption and nepotism to suspicious murders of government critics to tension over the role of China, Cambodia is facing a challenging time.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Sophorn Sek. He is a human rights lawyer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and he is founder of the Rights and Business Law Office there in Phnom Penh.

Sophorn, thank you for coming to Carnegie Council today.

SOPHORN SEK: Thank you, Devin, for inviting me to this program. It's my great pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: Good to see you.

The Rights and Business Law Office, tell us a little bit about what that does.

SOPHORN SEK: It was formed by myself with the idea initially in 2014 to support the indigenous community on legal issues because from my long experience working with indigenous peoples since 2004, I have seen a lot of problems caused to the indigenous way of life and indigenous community, land, natural resources, and also some other human rights issues, which is lack of support to them. So I formed this with the idea of supporting those people to help them articulate themselves and also to represent them in case they come to me. So as a lawyer I can help on their behalf in case they come to my office, or they invite me to their community. There are the human rights activists who are in need of lawyers.

That is the whole idea of why I formed this office. I started with a few cases defending indigenous communities as a legal person. In Preah Vihear two Chinese companies took almost all of the land for sugarcane plantations without proper consultations, without fair compensation, and without even talking to [the previous owners].

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say that things are getting better or worse in terms of the state of human rights in terms of your perspective on helping the indigenous communities and others?

SOPHORN SEK: In general, it's not better. But in the cases that I represent, at least, I observed a change that their threat to individual activists is not that much like before.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like China is playing a role in creating the context for some of these disputes. Can you explain, like for example, the sugarcane projects, or are there other projects that you've seen involving China where it creates a dispute about land rights?

SOPHORN SEK: Sure. What I have experienced in human rights violations, especially to indigenous land rights caused by Chinese companies—not only Chinese; other companies, too, but most of my cases are from Chinese companies—I observed that it is not them alone, but it is supported fully by the government because of the policy of the government and also executive regulations of Cambodia with regard to land rights of indigenous people. They treat indigenous people as living on state property, so they do not enjoy the right to be consulted or to participate in decision-making on their land. So that's the policy of Cambodia. So that's a big problem.

So the Chinese companies have contract relationships with the government, and the government provides protections in all means, to enable the long-term investment for 50 years. Before it was 99 years; now because the advocacy of civil society and vulnerable groups, the government has reduced it to a 50-year investment period. That is the big issue; the policy of the government in regards to indigenous land right is discriminatory.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you successful in your cases?

SOPHORN SEK: Successful if I measure according to my goal. I know that the court in Cambodia is not really neutral or predictable.But my goal in my case—I filed a complaint at the local courts there just to raise the issue of a crime against humanity in Article 188 in the criminal code of Cambodia, which is defined very well in a systematic way like that. My definitions to the crime is in this position.

For my goal in that case, yes, it was achieved. But for the imediate result for indigenous people, it has not been achieved, because they have not yet received anything so far. Only the threat is reduced.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say that the Cambodian government is moving closer to China in its diplomatic relations?

SOPHORN SEK: Last year I observed that the government of Cambodia has announced in public that they support [China's position] in the South China Sea. The government does not support the arbitration decisions in The Hague. From that support, Cambodia has problems in their relations between the ASEAN countries (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the 10 countries. That is my observations.

Based on that support to China, the government of Cambodia has received around 600 million yuan or something like that—I forget the figure; sorry for that—just a grant from China based on the support of the Cambodian government to the Chinese.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. So you're saying as a result it's creating tensions in Southeast Asia with Cambodia?

SOPHORN SEK: That's my observation.

DEVIN STEWART: Which countries in particular?

SOPHORN SEK: Like Vietnam, like Philippines. Taiwan is already there. A few other countries including the Philippines and Vietnam, and I think other countries also in Asia they can see Cambodia has changed the directions of ASEAN members in terms of the conflicts in the South China Sea.

DEVIN STEWART: You're in New York partly to talk about the state of Cambodian democracy and threats to the health of Cambodian democracy. Can you give us a sense of your overall assessment of how Cambodian democracy is doing?

SOPHORN SEK: Thank you for the questions. In fact, I am not criticizing the prime minister or any persons, but in general it is the term of democracy which places the value of dignity of persons. So individual right and freedom must be upheld and respected by the state and everyone who loves law in that context.

But from my observation in Cambodia, democracy is just a term. But in fact there are a lot of things that are suffering because of corruption, nepotism. Corruption covers the whole context of Cambodia. As part of that, the government has established anti-corruption units which are supposed to be independent, but in reality they're not because the head of the unit is a special and personal adviser to the prime minister, so there is someone above the law.

I think the democracy is now at a crossroads that I can see. There are a lot of factors that I can talk about, like the independence of the military. In fact, it's not independent. It's owned by the government and in fact is seen as belonging to the ruling party (CPP/Cambodian People's Party), not to the government. The police also are controlled fully by the ruling party.

DEVIN STEWART: So it's political?

SOPHORN SEK: Yes, political. And also, the state mechanisms, like the civil servants, teachers, judges, prosecutors, and many other factors in the state mechanism are controlled fully by the party. To me, my observation, this cannot uphold democracy. In fact, I don't say it is a kleptocracy—but I don't know what the definition is—but it is something which is very dangerous to democracy, and it's not easy to change.

DEVIN STEWART: You've mentioned that the state institutions are kind of captured by the party. You've mentioned nepotism, corruption, and the failure to promote transparency and accountability. In your event at New York University they also said that you would talk about the status of critics of the government. Can you tell us a little bit about the status of human rights activists, of critics of the government, and people who dissent against the party in general?

SOPHORN SEK: Let me express this in a way that the critics to the government, like a friend of mine, Dr. Kem Ley, who was assassinated on July 10, 2016, in daylight—I was very close to him. I used to meet him, like you and me are meeting, in teams of five or six to promote social harmony, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, things like that. He was very active and vocal. Most of the time his criticism was evidence-based and study-based, research-based. But the thing is, his conclusions [implicated] two persons, a leader, so that put him in a very dangerous position.

DEVIN STEWART: So he named specific people?

SOPHORN SEK: He named specific people. So that's the problem.

DEVIN STEWART: Do they know who assassinated him?

SOPHORN SEK: Not really. My observation from outside—I am not defending the case; I am not involved with the documents, but just observation—during the arrest of the perpetrators, the police of the municipality came to a conclusion that that one man the killer, the only killer because Dr. Kem Ley owed him $3,000—

DEVIN STEWART: To whom did he owe money?

SOPHORN SEK: To the perpetrator [of the killing]. They arrested him.


SOPHORN SEK: One person was arrested after around five or ten minutes after the assassination, as I know. In my analysis it doesn't make sense to me. Number one, these two, Dr. Kem Ley and the suspect—I call him the suspect—did not know each other. One was working in Thailand or in Siem Reap in Cambodia. They don't know each other. How can they borrow money?

Second is the amount of money; $3,000 is a lot. The money, if someone borrowed my money, I just need the money, not that person's life. In general, it doesn't make sense to me when the suspect confessed that he was the killer and he needed the money, this and that, but the judge has ruled that he is the killer.

DEVIN STEWART: Did this take place in Phnom Penh?

SOPHORN SEK: Yes, in the Caltex gas station. I forget the time, around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have any guess on who this person really might be? Can you say?

SOPHORN SEK: Sorry, sorry. I cannot make a conclusion. But to me I don't believe that the suspect is the only person who is involved in this assassination.

DEVIN STEWART: How frequent are these types of incidents where someone is killed and the context is a little suspicious?

SOPHORN SEK: So far there have been a lot. A labor activist was killed more than ten years ago and they cannot find the killer, union leaders.

DEVIN STEWART: Labor union?

SOPHORN SEK: Yes, labor unions. The movie star who was assassinated in the daylight too next to the market. A singer, a lot more. But with these cases, after almost 10 or 15 years, no one has been found guilty, no one has been held held responsible on those assassinations.

DEVIN STEWART: So when you say that Cambodian democracy is under threat and is on the threshold right now, what will determine the future health of the country's democracy?

SOPHORN SEK: Democracy needs active participation of the people, especially the taxpayers and the owners of the country. There is an opportunity in Cambodia that Cambodian people can make proper decisions if there is enough information and there is real competition.

Today the opposition (Cambodia National Rescue Party/CNRP) is quite strong compared to the ruling party. Of the 123 seats of the National Assembly, regardless of the other votes to the small party, the opposition received 55 seats out of 123. It's very close.

But Cambodia on its own, I don't see much opportunity. They need support from the international community to ensure that elections are free and fair. If it is not free and fair, acceptable, which is in the context of—it's not like boxing, but trying as much as to enable the voters to go to the polling stations and ensure the results of those elections is secure.

DEVIN STEWART: So the national elections are in 2018.


DEVIN STEWART: What would you say the prospects are for the opposition in 2018?

SOPHORN SEK: I feel that if the competition between the opposition and the ruling goes in the policy perspective, to me I would see the opportunity of opposition to rule the country is very high. But if the election is not free and fair, the opposition cannot participate in the elections, there is no way.

To me I see only CNRP and the CPP, who are the real competitors. The rest are just decorations. Sorry to say that to the other parties, but just my observation, my opinion only. The real competitors are only two. It's like here in the United States, Democrats and Republicans.

There it is very close. I think if there are mechanisms in which the international community can enable Cambodia, so that both the ruling and the opposition can have a fair competition in 2018, there would be a high potential of change.

DEVIN STEWART: Sophorn, thank you very much for coming to New York City today and for speaking with us.

SOPHORN SEK: Thank you for giving me the opportunity. It's my great pleasure.

[Editor's note: For more on the murder of Kem Ley, check out this July 2016 Voice of America story.]

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