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Cambodian leader cracks down on dissent { January 9 2006 }

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January 9, 2006
Cambodian Leader Cracks Down in Bid to Solidify Power

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, Jan. 8 - The harshest political crackdown in years is under way here in what some analysts are calling the final stage in Prime Minister Hun Sen's drive to consolidate unchallenged power.

Over the past year, he has choked off the last effective political opposition while continuing to marginalize the monarchy, manipulate the courts and intimidate labor unions and other civic groups. In December, the leader of the only significant opposition party, Sam Rainsy, who had already fled the country, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison for criminal defamation.

Now, with a series of arrests and lawsuits on defamation and related charges, Mr. Hun Sen is for the first time directly attacking the human rights groups that, by default, serve as a de facto democratic opposition.

"Cambodia right now is at a crossroads: It must decide whether it's going to be a real democracy or whether it's going to move inexorably toward a one-party state," said the American ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli.

The special United Nations envoy for human rights in Cambodia, Yash Ghai, said only strong action from the countries that support Cambodia's economy could stop the slide.

"It has all the hallmarks of the beginning of a totalitarian regime," he said.

The human rights groups are the most substantial and lasting legacy of a major international effort by the United Nations in the early 1990's to implant democracy in Cambodia, a nation wrecked by war, repression and mass killings.

From 1975 to 1979, the Communist Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of 1.7 million people, nearly one-fourth of the nation's population. In the decade that followed, Cambodia was ruled by a Vietnamese-backed Communist government in which Mr. Hun Sen rose to leadership.

By staging a coup in 1997, intimidating opponents, manipulating elections and cutting constitutional corners, Mr. Hun Sen has moved steadily to reclaim the full powers he held before the United Nations intervention.

The forms of democracy remain. A parliamentary election is to be held in 2008. And Mr. Hun Sen noted that he had not taken action against Mr. Sam Rainsy's party, just against Mr. Sam Rainsy.

Those forms, however, do not compensate for a policy of intimidation, the American ambassador said. "They have scared the hell out of the opposition, and it becomes more difficult to take these trappings of democracy as the real thing each time another voice is silenced," Mr. Mussomeli said.

He spoke after witnessing the arrest on Dec. 31 of the country's most prominent and outspoken human rights figure, Kem Sokha, on a charge of criminal defamation.

Mr. Kem Sokha was nonpartisan, but his town meetings on democratic rights and his unfettered radio call-in shows challenged the government's control of public opinion.

A second human rights campaigner, Yeng Virak, was arrested the same day. A third, Pa Nguon Teang, was arrested Wednesday. In October, a popular and acerbic radio journalist, Mom Sonando, and the president of an independent teachers union, Rong Chhum, were arrested on defamation charges.

At least seven other critics face criminal lawsuits by Mr. Hun Sen and at least five critics have fled the country, said Human Rights Watch, the New York-based monitoring group.

Mr. Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition party that bears his name, fled to France after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity early last year. A second top party official also fled, but a third, Cheam Channy, stayed behind, was arrested and is serving a seven-year prison sentence for his opposition activities.

Many analysts say they are puzzled by Mr. Hun Sen's crackdown when his leadership already seems unassailable. But in a country where political life is an endless struggle for power, Mr. Hun Sen seems never to rest.

This time he is using a tactic that has worked well for Singapore's leaders and is being tried by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand - eliminating opposition through lawsuits.

The government spokesman, Khieu Kanharith, offered one rationale, telling the Voice of America radio station that the arrests on defamation charges were part of the country's democratic system.

"We have to sue them," he said. "The most important thing is the general election. And in a general election in Cambodia and everywhere in the world, your prestige would be a great asset."

Mr. Hun Sen said he was filing his lawsuits to protect his own reputation. "I am a human being, not an animal, and deserve to have my honor and dignity," he said.

Mr. Hun Sen could contend that he had mellowed. No tanks have been in the streets and no wave of killings has occurred as was the case during the coup in 1997 when he seized sole leadership from Norodom Ranarridh, the co-prime minister installed during the United Nations intervention.

But even during the coup, civil society and human rights groups, with their strong backing from donor nations, were, for the most part, not targets.

"This has been the first breach of the human rights community's wall of safety," said Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "And so for the human rights community this is the darkest moment."

Over the years, these groups have embedded themselves in Cambodian life, where, particularly in isolated communities, they often represent people who distrust the police and fear powerful officials.

"Look at the grass roots, what can people do?" said a Cambodian reporter who, in the current atmosphere of uncertainty, spoke on the condition that his name not be used.

"If there is a land grab, they don't go to the police first," he said. "They go to Adhoc or Licadho" - two prominent human rights groups.

"In the village, if a husband beats his wife, she runs to Adhoc, not to the police," he said. "So the government does not enjoy the way these two groups help people fight for their rights, for freedom and justice."

And as he traveled around the country holding seminars with local people, the reporter said, "Kem Sokha was telling people about their rights."

At the time of his arrest, Mr. Kem Sokha said he had expected eventually to be arrested, exiled or killed. The determination of people like this is inspiring, said Naly Pilorge, a Licadho leader.

"It's funny with a country like Cambodia, with the history of the Khmer Rouge, you just go, 'Boo!' and people are afraid," she said. "And now you see these great displays of courage. And they knew something was going to happen to them sooner or later, and they just kept going."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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