Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Free speech gains voice in Cambodia's villages

By Seth Mydans International Herald Tribune

PHNOM PENH This has been the scene, more than 100 times, in every district of the country: a little eruption of free speech at the edge of the rice fields, and the government doesn't like it.

Leaving their crops and animals behind, 800 of Cambodia's poorest people gathered the other day in the shade of a blue tarpaulin in a village south of the capital and poured out a torrent of complaints and demands.

The price of fuel, the poor education system, problems with health care, bribery at every turn - these grievances have found a new outlet in independent forums like this one that challenge the government's control of information.

And the subject that dominated all others in the commune of Rokar Khnong was a passionate demand by the villagers for free speech and democratic rights.

One man wept as he stood at the microphone; one shouted, one raised a cheer for democracy. One woman with the cropped white hair of the elderly recited a poem in which she promised to die so that her country could live.

"I love democracy," declared a farmer. "I stopped work on my harvest so I could come here and speak at a democratic forum. We want to exercise our right to free speech."

Even the organizers were taken aback by the turnout and the assertiveness of the villagers. A crackdown on free speech is under way in Cambodia and in recent months the government has arrested several human rights advocates.

Among them was Kem Sokha, who founded these forums three years ago. They have had a growing impact through taped radio broadcasts, which can last for four hours or more, and independent radio stations are among the targets of the crackdown.

This month, under international pressure, Prime Minister Hun Sen released Kem Sokha and three other activists on bail and he now says he will drop charges against them.

But other activists and political figures remain in jail and the threat of arrest for libel hangs over those who speak out.

The outrage in Rokar Khnong suggests that the government will not have it easy if it tries to crush the democratic ideas that were introduced by the United Nations in the early 1990s. The concepts of human rights and free expression appear to have taken root, and if Kem Sokha's forums are an indicator, the fields and villages of Cambodia are restless with discontent.

"I have a question for the government," said an old woman wearing a checkered head cloth. "You talk about democracy, but how much right do the people of Cambodia have to speak out? If we speak out, will we be arrested like Kem Sokha?"

Another woman seized the microphone. "I have lived through many wars and I only have two relatives left alive," she said. "I am old now and I want to see democracy before I die."

Another followed. "I don't know how to speak," she said. "But I just want to send a message to Hun Sen: Stop sending people to jail for small crimes. You are abusing your power."

Further, she said, nobody can believe anything the government says. Referring to the government's official spokesman, she used a local expression: "You ask him cow and he answers buffalo."

Several speakers were angry enough to refer to the torments of the Khmer Rouge years, when 1.7 million people were executed or died of starvation, disease or overwork between 1975 and 1979.

"In the Khmer Rouge time my father was served soup and they asked him if it tasted good," one man said. "'Tell the truth,' they said. And so he said it did not taste good, and they killed him. Now when we speak the truth are we going to be jailed? Is Cambodia going back to the Communists again?"

Another man, a former schoolteacher, noted that Kem Sokha had been arrested simply for political slogans painted on a banner. "What about the Khmer Rouge who killed millions of Cambodians 27 years ago?" he said. "Why haven't they been put on trial?"

After years of delay, preparations for a trial have begun, though any proceedings are still many months away. Human rights advocates say the impunity of the Khmer Rouge - for current political reasons - has contributed to a sense of injustice in Cambodia.

As with other forums, local leaders were invited to join a panel in front of the speakers, and a deputy village chief and deputy district police chief were present at Rokar Khnong.

Ou Virak, a member of Kem Sokha's organization, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, was moderating in his absence, and he invited them to speak. "In a democratic forum, we want to hear opposing ideas, not just the people who support the forum," he said.

Ou Virak said it was beginning to be more difficult to organize these forums because of new fears of retribution in the villages. As the day's meeting dispersed, he thanked the local officials for allowing it to be held.


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