- Teaching Human Rights in Cambodia
In 1975, I considered myself already dead. I was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, being held and tortured at the Kach Roteh camp near Battambang in northwestern Cambodia. I did not expect to live, much less to become, 20 years later, the head of a human rights organization in a very different, but still troubled, Cambodia.
Until the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, Cambodia went through almost a quarter-century of hell: first war, then the rule of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, next a Vietnamese invasion, and, finally, the installation of a communist government beset by armed resistance and isolated from the international community.
Under the Paris Accords, Cambodia suddenly blossomed. Genuinely free and fair elections were held in 1993 under UN sponsorship, and, with great difficulty caused by the rivalry between the leading factions, a coalition government was formed. Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the royalist United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and [End Page 154] Cooperative Cambodia (better known as FUNCINPEC) became first prime minister. Hun Sen of the ex-communist Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), formerly prime minister of the State of Cambodia, was named second prime minister.
Disputes and impasses between the two coalition partners were everyday facts of life, but relative peace had been restored, and democratic institutions were starting to develop. The economy revived.
The government had some real successes during its first years. The National Assembly was created and started to pass the laws necessary to create the framework for durable democracy. In a scarcely visible but highly important action, the government initiated or supported training in human rights, democracy, and good governance for many thousands of civilian officials, military personnel, and police officers. In perhaps its greatest achievement, the government engineered the defection of the largest Khmer Rouge faction, associated with former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary. Although the amnesty for Ieng Sary was controversial, especially in the international community (it was more accepted within Cambodia), the defection did put an end to much of the fighting that still plagued many areas of the countryside. The growth of civil society was even more remarkable: Several hundred nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were founded, about 30 of which were devoted to human rights alone. Approximately 50 newspapers were created, representing the full spectrum of political views. The Buddhist religion underwent an explosive revival.
The government also had significant shortcomings, most notably in the areas of freedom of the press and respect for political pluralism. Over the last few years, four journalists have been murdered, with political motives widely suspected. In several instances, newspapers have been physically attacked or subjected to criminal and civil charges for printing stories deemed offensive. Dissident political factions, most notably former finance minister Sam Rainsy’s Khmer Nation Party (KNP), have been denied official recognition; KNP offices and activists have been attacked several times. On 30 March 1997, a peaceful rally that Sam Rainsy was leading to call for an independent judiciary became the target of a grenade attack. At least 12 people lost their lives, and scores more were injured. Sam Rainsy himself barely escaped death.
The biggest danger sign was the fierce rivalry between the two main coalition partners, FUNCINPEC and the CPP. Tensions rose on several occasions, and localized skirmishes broke out more than once between opposing military factions. But the top leaders always drew back from the brink of serious armed confrontation—until the weekend of 5–6 July 1997. At that time, military forces loyal to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen fought in the streets of Phnom Penh against soldiers backing First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh. Hun Sen’s forces routed the FUNCINPEC troops, and in effect ousted the first prime minister. Many [End Page 155] FUNCINPEC leaders fled the country, some were reportedly arrested, and some were summarily executed.
The second prime minister has promised to continue the coalition government with FUNCINPEC (minus Prince Ranariddh) and to carry out free and fair elections as scheduled in May 1998. But Cambodia’s future has suddenly been plunged into great uncertainty. Many foreign donors, who together provide 40 percent of the Cambodian...