Everyone in Cambodia has heard stories like this from the 1970s. Our own grandfather was taken from his home by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and never returned. But this is September 2017.
Our father’s dream of democracy was born from the sleepless nights of the Khmer Rouge regime, when a small circle of well-armed men in black robes sold their “year zero” dogma of destruction to Cambodia’s youths. The Khmer Rouge nearly succeeded in their mission to erase our history and culture by denying the differences that animate our individual humanity.
Yet despite all the horrors we experienced in the 20th century – genocide, war, foreign occupation – ordinary Cambodians have clung to the dream of a society in which they can choose their leader and shape their own fates. Tonight, our father dreams that dream from behind bars, accused by Prime Minister Hun Sen of “treason” for preaching grass-roots democracy. And outside those prison bars a terrified citizenry looks to the outside world to save it once again.
Our father first became involved in politics in the early 1990s, when he was elected as a member of parliament. In the course of his work he came to believe that Cambodians needed to learn more about democracy if they were to participate in it effectively, so he resigned to found the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), a U.S.-funded nonprofit, in 2002.
CCHR was different from other human rights organizations in Cambodia in the sense that not only that it defended human rights and promoted democracy but also effectively encouraged people to defend and demand their own rights within democratic principles. It gave people a platform to voice their opinions through public forums that were broadcast on local radio.
When the first public forum took place — the first of its kind since the genocide — it was attended by roughly a dozen people. Supporters of the ruling party ridiculed the event, but they underestimated the change that was about to happen. Through years of our father’s tireless traveling to every village in the country, the CCHR forums became popular among rural villagers. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of them showed up at each forum, eager to take hold of the microphone and tell the world what they had kept secret for decades. It was through the CCHR forums that many traumatized Cambodian people first felt the sense of personal pride, empowerment and dignity that comes from having their voices heard, their grievances aired and their views respected.
As soon as the government realized that this was happening, our father became a target. In late 2005, the authorities accused him of defamation for displaying banners with handwritten criticisms of the government by ordinary citizens. He was arrested at his office on New Year’s Eve. He was released 17 days later.
This time the charge is far more serious. The brutality of his arrest is revealing: His work has become a threat to the ruling party. The government is accusing him of treason based on a video publicly broadcast — with his knowledge — in 2013. In the video, he explains his willingness to learn from experts from around the world, his effort to effect nonviolent change from the grass roots, and his return to politics to make that happen. The government has produced and distributed a selectively edited version of the video to buttress its claims. Yet what it calls “treason” is nothing more than an expression of support for grass-roots empowerment and effective opposition in democracy.
Whether they like it or not, Cambodians’ attitudes towards freedom and democracy have already changed. And the change is here to last. As our father has said, they may detain our bodies, but they may not detain our conscience. Yes, his arrest frightens us. But we will never again be the passive victims the world once saw during the Khmer Rouge regime. The government’s crackdowns on the opposition, the media and civil society will not bring the silence it hopes for. Its repression is only contributing to political instability, and that is not in anyone’s interest.
A politically unstable Cambodia is not good for the world. Those foreign governments who seek favor with the current leadership for political or economic reasons are misguided. It is never a wise policy to ally oneself with a government that is an enemy of the people.
Today we once again call for the international community to take action to reverse the deteriorating political situation in our country. It is too late to save our grandfather and the millions of Cambodians who were murdered and oppressed by the Khmer Rouge. It is not yet too late to help the millions who are craving change now, including my father. But time is running out.