Legal action, compromise and asking for pardon to end disputes have become an integral part of Cambodian politics, effectively and commonly used in past several years.
Since 2005, the nation’s courts have seen 17 cases that monitors label political in nature, stemming from border issues, corruption, defamation, disinformation and incitement. The cases have ranged from local politicians and rights activists to the prime minister and senior-level opposition leaders.
The new trend has met with mixed reaction. There are those who say such cases are an improvement over the use of weapons to solve disputes. But there are others who would prefer the courts are not involved in politics, or legal issues used as a pretext to intimidate critics of the government.
Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party, an opposition party with three seats in the National Assembly, was once imprisoned briefly as the head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights; he was charged with defamation of the government for hanging up a banner for 2005’s Human Rights Day.
“My release at the time was the result of political compromise, with intervention from Cambodians inside and outside the country, as well as international intervention,” Kem Sokha told VOA Khmer by phone last week. “I see this as not a practice that we want. We want to use a legal system where everybody is under the law, as a democratic principle with no one above it.”
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, who was once involved in a court case similar to Kem Sokha’s, said the court’s lack of independence and its service to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party force compromises the other side usually doesn’t want.
“The culture of begging for pardon, and after the pardoning one turning to support or follow a powerful individual is not a good practice,” he said. “But it is understandable, based on dependency and injustice in our legal system.”
The practice has filtered all the way to Cambodia’s remote areas. In Ratanakkiri province, Pen Bona, an investigator for the rights group Adhoc, was removed from his position, via pressure from the court.
“The culture of compromise and begging for pardon is not right,” he said from Phnom Penh, where he now works in the group’s home office. “It is unlawful, and we absolutely don’t want this. Those who are wrong must be punished. However, we can only do that in a system where there is real justice.”
The prevailing system has also affected the highest reaches of politics, when, for example, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua was fined for defamation of Prime Minister Hun Sen last month.
Mu Sochua, who is also the party’s deputy secretary-general, was fined more than $4,000 by Phnom Penh Municipal Court, in court fines and in compensation to Hun Sen. She has vowed to appeal but does not rule out the option of a compromise.
“Compromising is an option if it gives dignity to both sides,” she said. “But if the compromise is to make one party, especially the victim, lose its dignity, as in writing a letter to apologize, this is not a compromise. Without a compromise that gives honor to both sides, the court is a better option.”
The case draws lots of condemnation both nationally and internationally expressing concern that the country might plunge into dictatorship.
Hun Sen, meanwhile, has lashed out of critics of the case, which he brought against Mu Sochua after she sued him for defamation, for allegedly degrading remarks made in a speech in April.
“Those of you who would like to issue a statement, both Khmer and foreigners, I would call you stupid, dumb and ignorant of the law,” Hun Sen said in a speech last week, lambasting critics. “You only recognize rights of the opposition not lawful rights of those in power.”
There are other cases. Twenty-two military officials are suing another SRP lawmaker. One opposition journalist has been jailed for defamation while another editor promised to shutter his paper to avoid the same fate.
“In a case where someone says sorry and admits his mistake, it is enough,” Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, told VOA Khmer. “Firstly, the government’s stance is to show what is right and wrong. Secondly, those who pass judgment are not the executive or legislative bodies. It is the judiciary body.”
Phay Siphan denied government influence over the courts, despite critics who note that the opposition rarely wins cases that appear political to begin with.
“I have never received [government] pressure in more than 10 years on the job,” Mong Monychakriya, a Supreme Court judge, said. “I solve a case based on my own merit, as the law permits.”
Some legal professionals, meanwhile, say politicians should leave the judicial system alone, to ensure its independence.
“We must follow the law and its procedure, once lawmakers give power to the court and the court is independent of political influence,” said Hong Kimsuon, an attorney for the Cambodian Defenders Project. “This is a decision that would benefit the whole population. If it’s a penal case, and [both sides] compromise and withdraw based on compromise and fear of influence, this is not a good practice.”