Friday, 17 July 2009

Cambodia's return to its authoritarian past

By Shalini Nataraj

At the same time that the Khmer Rouge trial is underway in Phnom Penh for atrocious human rights crimes committed 30 years ago, troubling signs are emerging today of another corrupt and authoritarian Cambodian government.

One Cambodian leader unwilling to tolerate the repression is Mu Sochua, a Parliamentarian in the opposition Sam Rainsy Party who previously held posts as Minister of Women's and Veteran's Affairs. Sochua, who is on the board of the Global Fund for Women based in San Francisco, started one of the first women's organizations in Cambodia and has done much to reduce the trafficking of women and girls.

In April, Prime Minister Hun Sen defamed Sochua, and in return for fighting back, she was stripped of her parliamentary immunity and ability to raise issues of transparency and human rights. Her lawyer, who now faces defamation charges, dropped her case so she faces trial next week with no legal representation. "Hun Sen has a long history of trying to muzzle Cambodia's political opposition and undermine the independence of the legal profession," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

I need to be allowed to do my job as an elected member of parliament," says Sochua, "I cannot do that if I am allowed no freedom of expression, and have to worry about every person I meet who might be harassed as a result of that meeting."

Last week, while in Cambodia, I asked Sochua why the government repression? Without censorship, Sochua said issues like rampant land grabs and the displacement of villagers would come to light. Since 2003, some 250,000 people have had their land seized, which, according to Sochua, the government is then selling to casinos.

Cheap labor and weak regulation make Cambodia attractive to foreign investment, such as the United States, which is the largest importer of garments from Cambodia. Sochua and I met with 50 members of a women's union, most under age 21, who work in factories where they live on less than $2 a day. We visited their living quarters where they live with up to three others in one-room apartments in buildings surrounded by open drains and garbage. They pay $20 a month for rent so they can send more money home, as they have become the sole breadwinners of rural families.

While Cambodians may not be suffering the massacres of past regimes, they are struggling under the weight of corrupt governments. The repression Mu Sochua faces is just one manifestation of this, and as the international community watches the trial of CambodiaĆ¢€™s dark past, we must be watching as well the present government, in real-time.

Shalini Nataraj is the vice president of programs at the Global Fund for Women, the world's largest foundation supporting the advancement of women's human rights.