[Editor’s Note: Sue Coffey is a writer and communications specialist with particular interest in human rights issues. She worked in Cambodia for the Australian government’s overseas aid program and as a communications adviser to the NGO Forum on Cambodia, before moving to Myanmar where she worked on education reform projects. She edited “Seeking Justice in Cambodia: Human Rights Defenders Speak Out”, a series of accounts from the original founders of Cambodia’s human rights organizations, and younger leaders. She recently spoke to VOA Khmer’s Nem Sopheakpanha about the book, published in November.]
VOA: Can you tell us briefly about the book? What is it about? What is the message?
Coffey: The book is called “Seeking Justice in Cambodia: Human Rights Defenders Speak Out,” and it’s a book of first-person interviews with the original founders of the human rights movement in Cambodia from the early 1990s right up to the present day. Through 14 interviews with Cambodian leaders of human rights organizations and two key UN personnel, including Rhona Smith, as well as a Foreword by Gareth Evans, the book really tells a powerful story about the development of human rights in Cambodia from the early days in the 1990s to now.
In the book, there are interviews with the earliest founders including people like Thun Saray, who founded ADHOC in 1991; and Pung Chhiv Kek, who founded LICADHO in Paris in the same year, and in Cambodia in 1992. It incudes Koul Panha, early Director of Comfrel, Chhith Sam Ath of NGO Forum, and several others including Kem Sokha, head of CCHR before going into politics and becoming head of CNRP. It also includes many younger leaders of human rights movements today, including people like Ou Virak of Future Forum and Chak Sopheap, head of CCHR ; also Venerable Luon Sovath and Mark Channsitha, who speaks about the garment workers.
Through the book I hoped to convey the story that their tales tell about the powerful struggle for human rights in Cambodia. They worked tirelessly to try and achieve human rights for Cambodians, for almost 30 years and that struggle continues today. It has been a long struggle, and it has still not been achieved, because it has been very difficult to be a human rights defender or to achieve human rights in Cambodia, particularly with the recent developments in the last two years.
But I think these human rights defenders’ stories are powerful, and I really hope that they resonate with young Cambodians in particular. These individuals are quite remarkable, and I felt that it has clearly been an extraordinary struggle to try to achieve human rights for Cambodians.
VOA: The book came out just after the release of several civil society activists?
Coffey: The book was released in early November and we launched the book formally just a few weeks ago. I originally intended to launch the book in March this year. But with all the changes that occurred in Cambodia, at the end of last year, after consultation with the contributors, I really thought that it would be safer to wait until after the last election. So, the book was released in early November, and is inspiring a lot of interest both internationally and in Cambodia.
That’s very pleasing because I really do want Cambodians to be able to read the book, which is why I have had the book translated into Khmer, and made the translation available free on my website.
VOA: What was your motive behind the writing book? What compelled you to write the book?
Coffey: It started because I came to Cambodia in 2012 for two years as an Australian government volunteer. I work in communications, and in Cambodia, I was assigned as a communications adviser to a peak body of human rights organizations.
As soon as I arrived, I could see how difficult the situation of human rights was for Cambodians. There was a lot of land grabbing going on; people were being evicted from their homes with little or no compensation. Transparency in government dealings was very low. There were a lot of environmental problems with hydro-electric schemes. Altogether, I thought that Cambodians had a very difficult time achieving human rights. But I worked with some really remarkable people in that time, as I helped to promote human rights issues. And gradually the idea of the book grew after I came back to Australia. I began to think that unless someone told these people’s stories, they might be lost to posterity, lost to history. I thought it was very important to have a record of the work of these people. I hope that young Cambodians, in particular, read these stories and take inspiration from them, because these people really have been so important in trying to develop human rights for Cambodians.
VOA: What do you want to see happen once the book is published? What change do you want to see the book helps contribute to?
Coffey: I would really like to think that people, both Cambodians, and international scholars, read the book, and learn lessons about the period and the struggle for human rights. At one level, the book contributes to the history of Cambodia because these are the stories of the human rights founders, in a period of time that I think we need to know more about internationally.But I would also really like to think that young Cambodians take inspiration from these stories, and that they are encouraged to try and work towards bringing change in the human rights area. I think Cambodia has had a very bad record for human rights: there’s no separation of power between the judiciary, the government and the army. All kinds of human rights abuses persist: land grabbing continues, there is no fair access to resources. I would like to think the book might act as a force for change, to encourage people to take on the cause for development of human rights, as these remarkable people have done.
VOA: Have you had any feedback or response from the public or civil society or the government so far?
Coffey: There have been very encouraging responses since I published. I’m hearing from a lot of people internationally who are very interested in the book, and I am also receiving a lot of messages from young Cambodians who are saying ‘Thank you’. Thank you for making this available, free, in Khmer. There are so many books about Asia and about Cambodia that are not translated, and they are not available easily for Cambodians to read. I think it’s very important for Cambodians to know their own history, so I was absolutely committed to making this book available in Khmer, free, and it’s on my website: seekingjusticeincambodia.com.
VOA: As you know, recently the Cambodian government has said it will loosen restrictions on civil society groups, as well as independent media outlets and the possibility of banned opposition politicians to enter the political arena once again. What is your take on that?
Coffey: I think this is definitely an important development for the better. It has come about after the very unfortunate events at the end of last year. I had only just interviewed Kem Sokha, 10 days before he was arrested and then, of course, he was in jail for a year and is now still under house arrest. I think the problem is, though, that the government will hold power for another five years, so it has every seat in the house. So Opposition politicians cannot hold seats in the parliament, and one wonders really how effective it’s going to be. But we must have hope.
VOA: Given the recent developments, do you have any message for the Cambodian people?
Coffey: I think Cambodians are wonderful people, and I really enjoyed my time there so much. They have such great human resources and so many skills. I think they have struggled so much under difficult regimes, under the Khmer Rouge, through the Vietnamese to the 1990s and now. I really feel that they need to take inspiration from the people who have tried to fight for human rights, and keep fighting for them, because they deserve these rights and their Constitution mandates that they deserve these rights.
VOA: Do you have anything else you want to add?
Coffey: I think it’s been a very difficult year. Cambodia is now a one-party [state], and while the Government has been loosening some of the repressive controls imposed before the election, it’s still very difficult to achieve human rights. It’s very much my hope that things improve in Cambodia in the future because Cambodians deserve to have the human rights outlined in their Constitution, access to human rights for all and fair access to resources.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.