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Cambodia Hosts Visit by UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia; By Carlyle A. Thayer

CAS Article No. 15/2019

June 26 2019

Courtesy: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia Hosts Visit by UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, May 17, 2019.

We are working on a report of the visit by Rhona Smith, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, and the timing of the Battambang Province Court to call in for questioning twenty or so former Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials. The court hearings were scheduled for 8th-9th May during the final days of Smith’s trip to Cambodia. It is unlikely this is a coincidence.

Your assessment on the following questions would be very welcome:

Q1. Do you think anything can be gleaned from the timing of the court questioning of the CNRP activists in Battambang province right at the end of Rhona Smith’s trip?

ANSWER: The decision by the Battambang Province prosecutors to call in 26 former members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) for questioning is a reflection of the prevailing political atmosphere of intimidation by the Hun Sen regime against real or perceived opponents. It is likely the timing of this incident was coincidental and was instigated by local officials responding to a police report and not an indirect message or signal by the central government to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith.

It should be noted that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Sam Rainsy, acting president of the CNRP, to eight years in jail on charges of inciting the military to disobey orders and for insulting the King during Smith’s visit.

Nonetheless, the Battambang incident attracted Rhona Smith’s attention and added further evidence of Cambodia’s closed political space. This was Smith’s seventh visit to Cambodia and she has a good understanding about the human rights situation there. The main issue that dominated was Cambodia’s refusal to permit Rhona Smith to visit former CNRP leader Kem Sokha who is under “judicial supervision” or a restrictive form of house arrest.

Q2. Do you think the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) could have sent a different message during her trip?

ANSWER: By most accounts the Hun Sen regime pursued a policy of ministerial engagement with Rhona Smith in an effort to highlight progress – however limited – in a number of areas including legal aid, pre-trial detention, land settlement issues, anti corruption and NGO access to persons in detention. Smith met with the ministers of justice, foreign affairs, land management, interior as well as senior officials from the Anti Corruption Unit, National Authority for Combating Drugs, and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee.

Rhona Smith came with a broad agenda to link concerns over human rights with Cambodia’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, in particular non discrimination and equality, participation and accountability. Chin Malin, deputy chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, responded by arguing, “We have developed human rights through political stability, peace and economic growth, improving people’s livelihoods and creating jobs.” In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Rhona Smith counter-argued, “peace without justice is unsustainable and development without freedom will risk leaving people behind.”

The interrogations of ex-CNRP local officials in Battambang did not overshadow Rhona Smith’s visit. Cambodian government officials were not shy in publicly disagreeing with her comments and observations. For example, Government spokesperson Phay Siphan responded to Smith’s recommendations to improve human rights and make the political space more inclusive, by calling the recommendation politically motivated and charging NGOs with “serving political purposes.” When Rhona Smith stated she raised Kem Sokha’s detention with government officials, Chin Malin flatly denied this was the case. He stated, “We discussed on how to conduct judicial reforms. We did not discuss on political issues or NGO’s requests. She didn’t raise [any issue] about the opposition party.”

Q3. We are seeking insights into Hun Sen's efforts to avoid losing the European Union’s Everything But Arms (EBA) concessions and Hun Sen’s efforts to ensure the succession of his son. Do you think there is a tension with Hun Sen's flirtations with economic damage (via potential loss of trade) and his efforts to get his son to lead the CPP, a party that has long promoted itself as the “don't-rock-the-boat” party of businessmen?

ANSWER: On recent visits to Cambodia I have detected some disquiet among political elites about Cambodia’s growing economic dependency on China. These critics would like to see more engagement with Japan, the EU, the United States and Australia. The loss of preferential tariffs under the EBA scheme will impact on workers in the textile industry and this is likely to bring some pressure on the Hun Sen regime to make concessions to obtain a reversal of the EU’s position.

There is little sign as yet of a linkage between the EBA tariff issue and Hun Manet’s political rise in the sense that those persons who are concerned if not alarmed by the loss of preferential tariffs do not appear to oppose Hun Manet’s political rise.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. The views expressed in this article are of the author.]

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