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30 Years of ‘Violence, Repression, Corruption,’ Human Rights Watch Reports

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, talks with top leaders of his party before an event by the ruling Cambodian People's Party marking the 36th anniversary of the 1979 downfall of the Khmer Rouge regime at their party headquarters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Prime Minister Hun Sen is about to celebrate 30 years in power, and to mark the occasion, Human Rights Watch has prepared a report highlighting the violence, repression and corruption it says has been the hallmark of his regime.

“Although in recent decades he has allowed limited space for political opposition and civil society, the patina of openness has concealed an underlying reality of repression, and his government has been quick to stifle those who pose a threat to his rule,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement launching the report.

He called on the international community to do more to push for reform in the country, which saw an end to decades of civil strife in the 1990s but has developed little in the way of basic rights and freedoms.

“Cambodia urgently needs reforms so that its people can finally exercise their basic human rights without fear of arrest, torture, and execution,” said Adams, who was an aid worker in Cambodia and who authored the report. “The role of international donors is crucial in making this happen.”

The 67-page report is a retrospective on the life and rule of Hun Sen, from his early years in Kampong Cham province; to his decision to join the Khmer Rouge, where he was a low-ranking commander in an area “where crimes against humanity were committed”; and to his rule of Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, including the 1997 coup that ended a power-sharing agreement with the democratically elected Norodom Ranariddh, firmly securing the Cambodian People’s Party in power.

The report also examines the “repression and corruption of the past decade, during which political and social activists, trade union leaders, and journalists have been killed in connection with their opposition to CPP policies and practices,” Human Rights Watch said. “In recent years, a government-generated land crisis affecting the urban and rural poor has adversely affected hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, while Hun Sen has openly obstructed accountability for international crimes perpetrated in 1975-1979 by the Khmer Rouge, relying on his control of a Cambodian judiciary that also ensures continuing impunity for abuses.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the report as “an envious attack” by the rights organization. “We know that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen is the choice of the citizens,” he said. “Any scrutiny or invasion is the behavior of brutal pro-imperialists.

Ou Virak, chairman of the board at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said he does not “totally” support the report, which cites events from the 1980s. “The human rights situation has much improved,” he said. But he said the report is a reminder “to push for the promotion of human rights and democracy.”

Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch called on international governments and donors “to end their passive response to these decades of rights abuses, repression, and massive corruption, and to make a renewed commitment to support Cambodians who struggle for free and fair elections, the rule of law, an end to corruption and land grabs, and respect for basic rights such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”

“After 30 years of experience, there is no reason to believe that Hun Sen will wake up one day and decide to govern Cambodia in a more open, inclusive, tolerant, and rights-respecting manner,” Adams said. “The international community should begin listening to those Cambodians who have increasingly demanded the protection and promotion of their basic human rights.”