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Cambodia Needs ‘Change from Below,’ Prominent Advocate Says

Brad Adams (left), Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Brad Adams (left), Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, worked in Cambodia in some of its most violent post-war years, including during the 1997 coup that put Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party firmly in power. In an interview this week, Adams said the current government is unlikely to change, and that Cambodia’s best hope is at the grassroots.

Hun Sen has ruled in one way or another for 30 years, and a new report from Human Rights Watch not only catalogues many of the rights abuses that have taken place in that time, but it has also criticized the international community for allowing that to happen and for failing to invest in democracy.

“And the donors have basically said, ‘Well Cambodia is no longer at the center of geopolitics,’” Adams said. “We’ll keep giving money because we feel guilty about the situations in Cambodia. But we’re not going to invest a lot in trying to improve the political situation.”

Meanwhile, Hun Sen has become the sixth-longest serving political leader in the world. “Cambodia has been promised human rights, democracy, the rule of law, good governance, clean government, and all that has failed under Hun Sen’s time in power,” Adams said.

The CPP, meanwhile, appears to have no plans to change, despite negotiations with the opposition in a political deal, he said.

“Every signal that the CPP is sending is that they are trying to block reforms,” Adams said. “Just yesterday, the CPP’s chief negotiator, Bin Chhin, said that the CPP wants to decrease the amount of campaigning before the election. So I see no sign that the CPP is reforming. I think they are going to try to say they are reforming without reforming, because I think that they know that if there is free and fair election, and if there are independent bodies overseeing the election, they are having a very good chance to losing.”

Cambodia’s best hope “will be change from below,” he said. “The turnout of the last election of young people, their participation in politics and their enthusiasm to have a more modern democratic country will have an impact.”