Rule by Fear
Hong Kong,China — Renowned Cambodian poet Krom Ngoy, whose words are often viewed as codes of morality, began one of his works by noting abuses in the society of his time in the early 20th century and urging his people to abandon them: the rich abusing the poor, the physically strong abusing the weak and officials abusing their people by “sending them to jail, putting them in chains or sending them to death by guillotine.”
These abuses were the manifestation of what might be called an “abuse and imprisonment mentality.” This mentality was instrumental in the Khmer Rouge holocaust the Cambodian people suffered in the 1970s. Yet despite the horrors of the holocaust, this state of mind remains very much alive in Cambodian society today.
It has surfaced, for example, in many land disputes over the years between people of different status. In these disputes – commonly known as land-grabbing – the rich and powerful abuse and imprison those who dare to resist the acquisition of their land.
In 2007 a nongovernmental organization recorded that nearly 5,600 families were forcibly evicted from their homes and lands, at times brutally by the police, at the behest of the rich and powerful. Many people saw their homes and other belongings destroyed and burned, and were forced to vacate the land.
Some 150 victims were arrested, but due to pressure from various sources, including fellow villagers, some of those arrested were released on bail. However, more than 50 of them were still in jail awaiting trial at the end of last year.
Abuse and imprisonment have continued in land-grabbing incidents in 2008. In June, four villagers in Kampot province were jailed and charged with the theft of a cell phone and damage to land-allotment signposts in a land dispute between them and fellow villagers on one hand, and an army unit on the other.
Witnesses said that in the confrontation between approximately 30 protesting villagers and more than 100 armed soldiers, an official was using his cell phone to call for reinforcements and the villagers grabbed it to thwart his call. Regarding the signposts, the villagers simply pulled them out because the soldiers planted them on their land.
As in previous eviction cases, the jailing of the four villagers on such flimsy charges was designed to subdue the villagers’ resistance to the confiscation of their land by the army. Soon after the arrest of the four people more than 20 villagers fled the area, fearing they might be jailed too. Now the army has demolished the homes of all the villagers to take their land.
In other civil disputes, such as cases over service or loan contracts, the abuse and imprisonment of parties who cannot honor their obligations is common. A party, with connivance from the courts, simply invokes a criminal offense such as breach of trust or fraud in order to arrest the defendant, thereby pressuring the latter to meet his or her obligations.
The same mentality is even more prevalent in Cambodian politics. Over the years, Prime Minister Hun Sen has sent, or threatened to send, his critics to the notorious Prey Sar Prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Recently Hun Sen warned his rival, exiled Prince Norodom Ranariddh, not to return to Cambodia to participate in this month’s election, or he would be “handcuffed” and put in jail. The prince’s appeal against a sentence for breach of trust is still pending in the Supreme Court.
Last April Hor Nam Hong, the Cambodian foreign minister, filed a defamation lawsuit against Dam Sith, the editor of a local newspaper, when the latter reported a remark by Sam Rainsy, a member of Parliament and opposition leader, that Hor had been chief of a Khmer Rouge prison in the past. Since defamation is not punishable by jailing, Hor additionally charged Dam with disinformation, for which he could be imprisoned.
In June, Dam was jailed for his reporting. However, due to intense national and international pressure for his release, Hun Sen acted to release Dam on bail.
Hor filed the same lawsuit against Sam Rainsy for defamation and disinformation. Soon after Dam was freed on bail, the court in Phnom Penh sought to lift Sam Rainsy’s parliamentary immunity in order to put him in jail. Because of national and international pressure not to mar the ongoing electoral process, this attempt to lift his immunity was deferred, however.
It seems that Cambodian prosecutors and judges have nurtured the same mentality. They have overlooked their constitutional duty to protect the rights and freedoms of Cambodia’s citizens. They have defied the principle of limiting pretrial detention to exceptional cases, as enshrined in the code of criminal procedure, and have made the accused person’s right to bail very difficult. In short, they have willingly cooperated with the rich and powerful to abuse and imprison people of a lower status.
This abuse and imprisonment mentality has caused many injustices in Cambodian society, and Cambodia cannot live in peace with such injustice. It must address the same abuses as the ones the poet Krom Ngoy observed in his era. Cambodia must rid itself of this mentality that prevails in society.
The nation could eradicate these abuses by adopting the rule of law and should begin this process with its courts of law. The courts need to assert their independence and uphold their impartiality. They also need to ensure that all are equal before the law, that people’s rights and freedoms are protected and that all those accused of crimes have the right to bail and can be detained only in exceptional cases.
Marc Bloch, a renowned French historian, said, “The most reliable touchstone of a social system is the manner in which men are judged in court.”
This dictum should help Cambodian prosecutors and judges in the process of change that is needed to rescue the country from its preoccupation with abuse and imprisonment.
(Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)