Activist: Cambodia needs international respectability

"There is no best-case scenario" - human rights activist Naly Pilorge on the Cambodian elections. [LICADHO]

Cambodian human rights activist Naly Pilorge is in Brussels to plead with MEPs and the Commission not to take Phnom Penh’s claims to democracy seriously, following an unexpectedly damning resolution by lawmakers earlier this year.

Naly PIlorge is deputy director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, and has herself been arrested three times by the authorities.

PIlorge was interviewed by Matthew Tempest.

What is it that’s brought you to Brussels today, and what can the EU do?

Because both member states and the EU are very much a player in Cambodia. We want them to hear from someone who works in the field that the situation is *not* improving, since the resolution.

The resolution was very important, and the fact-finding missions, and the announcement by MEPs and national MPs in Germany and Sweden, but there needs to be more follow-up to that. Things are not improving, they are going backward. What are the EU institutions plans to monitor the situation in Cambodia? If Cambodia says it’s a democracy, are the institutions actually democratic? And if not, since the EU money comes from taxpayers, does the Commission or the Parliament go further than the resolution, or just keep supporting this repressive government – which uses this aid and assistance to repress its people? There is child labour, no living wage, land grabs…

Cambodia seeks and needs international respectability. Brussels should remember that.

Looking forward, there are local elections in Cambodia next year, and national elections in 2018. What is your best-case scenario – and worst-case scenario?

I’m not sure there is a best-case scenario! We expect the worst. People are so afraid. They don’t want to talk – they just survive, and don’t say anything. Yet it’s almost with technology, social media, and with the fact that people are losing their land, and migrating – as far as Qatar – to earn a living. Our government just signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar promising to send over 100,000 workers.

We are lucky in one sense – we have a huge youth population. At least 60% or more are under-35. They have smartphones, some study abroad, and are starting to realise that the world is not like Cambodia. That their government has lied when it says it’s a democracy. They see abroad that people can express their opinions, can gather in public, without being arrested, or beaten, or charged. They see that in other countries, the police are there to protect the citizens, and the soldiers are there to protect the borders – and they want that.

By coincidence with your visit, yesterday Amnesty International reported that Hong Sok Hour had been handed a seven-year prison sentence for reposting something on Facebook…

He was a senator from the opposition, who had been held in pre-trial detention, and has now been sentenced to seven years for various criminal charges, but basically what he did was repost something from the internet on his Facebook page.

This is just another conviction after a long slew of convictions of opposition party members – including the president of the opposition, who is now in exile in France. And the deputy president, who is in de facto detention – he’s staying inside the headquarters of the opposition in Phnom Penh.

Then there are 19 various activists and opposition figures who are now in prison. So the sentencing of Hong Sok Hour is just the culmination of that.

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I’m presuming that if you can get seven years in jail just for posting something on Facebook, then whatever the claims to democracy of Cambodia, free speech at least barely exists?

Yes. The prime minister of Cambodia ordered the arrest of two youths for something they posted on Facebook. One of them was then arrested, and charged, and sentenced, and sent to jail – all within 48 hours.

There’s no pretence. The PM ordered it…the courts did it.

For those who haven’t been following Cambodian politics, what are the ‘Black Monday’ protests?

In May 2016, there was a series of arrests and detentions of staff of another human rights organisation called Ad Hoc. They were imprisoned, along with a member of the National Election Commission, and a grassroots campaign called Black Monday began. The idea was every Monday to wear black, to appeal and lobby for their release.

The first Monday, eight people were arrested, including three from my own organisation.

After that, every Monday people were arrested, and then released. Up to 36 at a time.

So there is just no tolerance for dissent, let alone action.

Am I right in thinking just wearing black is now a criminal offence?

For sure. In rural areas people who wore black and didn’t know about the campaign were arrested. In Pnohm Penh, NGOs get arrested for wearing black, and get quizzed about whether they want to ‘start a revolution’. LICADHO always produced black T-shirts, even before Black Monday. And so now we’re printing them underground. I brought some with me to Brussels.

And that’s actually affected businesses – businesses that have nothing to do with the protests.

I note you’re dressed in black today. Have you had personal run-ins with the authorities?

Sure. I was just telling MEPs. We’ve had three LICADHO staff in prison. I’ve been charged three times, I’ve been tried three times. A colleague was beaten last week. We’ve been threatened with being closed down.

It’s been reported that the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party HQ has had helicopters circling above it, and armed boats patrolling outside – that doesn’t sound like ‘democracy’?

We’ve had the same leadership in power for 30 years, that’s not a healthy sign for any democracy. We don’t use the words ‘free and fair’ to describe elections there.

We’ve moved through many worrying times – including the military coup of 1997 – but what happened a month ago was the most alarming.

What happened was after a number of opposition members were charged and imprisoned, the government started sending tanks and rocket launchers and trucks of military soldiers were sent into Phnom Penh on the justification that they were being ‘repaired’.

And for two days, all night and during the day, they were moving up and down in front of the opposition party offices. And military generals went on the record in pro-government media, talking about it.

It was a de facto military coup. Nothing was announced, but it was the generals who were talking, and they were the ones threatening the protestors, and when you went out on the streets. You saw soldiers. It is a really disturbing situation.

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