Category Archives: Cambodia

News in Review: Cambodia – November 24, 2015

Street scene in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Photo: World Bank

Cambodia’s political rapprochement has come to an end. The country’s opposition leader, Sam Rainsy of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has been removed from parliament and faces arrest over comments he made against the foreign minister in 2008. These events are the latest in a country facing amplified political tension, including the brutal assaults of two CNRP lawmakers who have been hospitalized for a month. Rhona Smith, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, warns that if the country keeps going in this direction, Cambodia and the human rights of its people are on the cusp of a “dangerous tipping point,” given that “the past weeks have been marked by a number of worrying developments: increasing tensions between the two principal political parties; incidences of violence; intimidation of individuals; and resort to offensive language in the political discourse.”

Cambodian Opposition Leader Faces Arrest Following Removal from Office, Cries “Constitutional Coup”

An arrest warrant has been issued for Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy, citing “public defamation and instigation of discrimination.” In 2008, Rainsy alleged that current Foreign Minister Hor Namhong was tied to the Khmer Rouge and ran a prison for the regime. In 2011, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Rainsy in-abstentia, sentenced him to two years in prison and fined him 8 million riels ($2000 USD). Namhong’s lawyer is now pursuing the dormant defamation case against Rainsy, who has since been stripped by the Cambodian People’s Party-led (CPP) parliament of his lawmaker status, including his right to immunity. The day before the arrest warrant was issued, Rainsy stated during his visit to Japan that he was unsure if the ruling-CPP would commit to holding elections in 2016 and 2017. This comment prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to threaten legal action against Rainsy. The CNRP President has called the move a “constitutional coup when you want to arrest the leader of the opposition” and is postponing his return to Cambodia from South Korea, citing “safety concerns.”

Cambodia: political crackdown reaching a ‘dangerous tipping point’ warns UN rights expert. UN News Centre. November 23, 2015.

Tha, Thai. Cambodia Denies Sam Rainsy Arrest Warrant Was Politically Motivated. Radio Free Asia. November 19, 2015.

Vannarin, Neou. “Cambodia’s Sam Rainsy Stays Abroad as Key Opposition Figures Head Home.” Voice of America. November 23, 2015.

Myanmar Election Influences Democratic Movements in the Region, Shines Light on Cambodia’s Tense Political Situation

Myanmar’s election was closely followed in Cambodia, from major news outlets to Cambodian youth discussing the events on Facebook, and many contemplating what it means for Cambodia’s political future. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy applauded the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) “landslide victory” in Myanmar. He expressed that the election “shows, once more, that the days of all authoritarian regimes worldwide are counted… the wind of freedom that is blowing throughout the world will also reach Cambodia in the near future.” Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has ruled Cambodia for 30 years. He has stated that he will run for a fifth term in the country’s 2018 general election. Looking to Cambodia’s next election and running against Hun Sen, Rainsy likened himself to the NLD’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Critics dismiss the comparisons, claiming that Rainsy is too polarizing, and that he has fled his country in the past, unlike Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Spokesman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Sok Eysan, claimed that, “The opposition party in Myanmar has a clear patriotic spirit. Every activity of the opposition party is in the Myanmar people’s interest. But the opposition party in Cambodia is completely different… It is 180 degrees different… The opposition party in Cambodia does not have patriotic ideals but ideals of revenge, to block powerful countries from offering aid to Cambodia” [Cuddy, The Phnom Penh Post].

Chandara, Yang and Morm Moniroth. Cambodia Can Benefit From Lessons Learned From Myanmar Vote: Analysts. Radio Free Asia. November 12, 2015.

Cuddy, Alice and Meas Sokchea. “Myanmar opposition victory resonates in Cambodia.” The Phnom Penh Post. November 11, 2015.

Vannarin, Neou. Hun Sen Decries Opposition’s Cambodia-Myanmar Comparison. Voice of America. November 12, 2015.

Cambodia’s Mass Faintings Continue

Cambodia’s mass fainting episodes continue to rise. On November 19, a farmer sprayed insecticide on rice in Kandal province, prompting 100 workers in a nearby South Korean-owned toy factory to become weak, dizzy, vomit, and faint. Thus far in 2015, 1200 Cambodian factory workers have fainted. The faintings tend to occur with factory workers— vulnerable to sub-par and stressful working conditions, poverty, and malnutrition—and the episodes are considered to be a “mass psychogenic illness” among the workers. Earlier this month, one garment worker died and 21 garment workers were hospitalized after a mass fainting at a Chinese-owned factory. Students are now suffering from fainting episodes. On November 14, Cham Muslim students fainted at their boarding house in Tbong Khmum province. The female students told police that they saw shadows of people underneath the stilted building, prior to the mass fainting. The possibility of a poison attack is being investigated in the community, which is facing increased discrimination against Muslims. Their nearby school, which was built by and intended for Muslims, has previously been subjected to vandalism. The school’s owner claims that he received a death threat this month, threatening his life if he did not turn the school over to the Cham people in the village. The police are still investigating the motives behind the attack and have not made any arrests.

David, Sen. “Muslim schoolgirls ‘gassed’ in Tbong Khmum.” The Phnom Penh Post. November 17, 2015.

Mass faintings strike Cambodian factories. The Nation: Pakistan. November 21, 2015.

Sokhean, Ben. Death Threat Preceded Mass Fainting. The Cambodia Daily. November 19, 2015.

Sokhean, Ben. Mass Fainting at Factory After Farmer Uses Insecticide Nearby. The Cambodia Daily. November 20, 2015.

News in Review: Cambodia – November 10, 2015

Photo captured by the AP, and published in the Bangkok Post on November 4, 2015. Chay Sarith and Mao Hoeun, two of the three military soliders who “confessed” to assaulting two opposition lawmakers, are escorted to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court by police officers on November 4 (AP photo).

Cambodia’s “Culture of Dialogue” has dwindled to a culture of fear as Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) remain at odds. Military soldiers have come forward and confessed to assaulting CNRP lawmakers, who remain hospitalized in Bangkok. The CNRP is pressuring the ruling CPP not to relinquish land to Vietnam, in a long-standing border dispute. Cambodia looks to be competitive in the global market, and China recently provided Cambodia with “shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.”

Cambodian Soldiers Confess to Beating Lawmakers; No Arrests Made

Three Cambodian military soldiers turned themselves in and confessed to beating two Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmakers on October 26. The lawmakers, who remain in a Bangkok hospital, were attacked after leaving a parliamentary session. They were dragged from their cars and suffered extensive injuries, including facial lacerations, a torn eardrum, and broken bones. The off-duty soldiers, who have not been arrested, claim that they were reacting to the lawmakers after they hurled racist insults at the soldiers. The lawmakers deny the claims and say that more than three men were involved in the beatings and remain at-large, including the “masterminds” of the attacks. The investigating committee, composed of eight high-ranking police and ministry officials, has stated that it will not investigate the incident further. The CNRP says it will boycott future parliamentary sessions unless stricter security measures are provided for its politicians. Concerned about the future of justice and democracy in the country, Human Rights Watch is calling on the Cambodian government to “ask the Cambodia field office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct an independent investigation into the attack, and make a commitment to act on its findings.”

Cambodia: Chilling Account of Attacks on Legislators.” Human Rights Watch. October 31, 2015.

Kethya Tha, Samean Yun and Hong Sokunthea. “Cambodia Orders Security Strengthened For All Politicians After Assault on Lawmakers.” Radio Free Asia. November 5, 2015.

Narim, Khuon, and Mech Dara. “Hun Sen Says Lawmakers Hurled Insults Before Beatings.” The Cambodia Daily. November 6, 2015.

Three Cambodian soldiers confess to beating lawmakers.” PressTV. November 5, 2015.

 Cambodia faces Obstacles in Ascending to the Global Market

The ASEAN Economic Community will be formed in two months, with hope that Cambodia’s unskilled labor population will transition into a manufacturing hub. ASEAN’s free trade zone will be led by professions with “internationally recognized skills,” such as medicine, engineering, accounting, architecture, and tourism. Cambodia performs well in tourism, but less so in the other fields, signaling a need to strengthen schooling and vocational training in the country (which is still reeling from the effects of the Khmer Rouge period). It is expected that Thailand and Vietnam will continue to produce large-scale goods, while Cambodia could produce smaller-scale manufactured items. This would take pressure off the garment industry, which took off after Cambodia joined the WTO in 2004. Moreover, the AEC will give way to a regionally liberalized economy, including the freedom of movement with people and goods. This is expected to open up jobs and counter the demand for human trafficking and the smuggling of people.

Chan, Sok. Chinese Auto Group Plans Factory Here. Khmer Times. November 1, 2015.

Hunt, Luke. “Cambodia Pins Economic Hopes on AEC.” Voice of America. November 1, 2015.

Kunmakara, May. “Shaping Up Requires Action.” Khmer Times. November 1, 2015.

Cambodia and Vietnam Dispute over Border Demarcation

On October 27-28, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, and their respective ambassadors met in in Ho Chi Minh City for their eighth meeting on border province cooperation and development. The meeting upheld the countries’ commitment to bilateral relations and trade. Trade between the two countries increased to $2.3 billion USD this year. And, Vietnam is currently investing 172 projects in Cambodia, valued at $3.61 billion USD, making it the second biggest investor in Cambodia. All the while, a border delimitation dispute remains over the Dak Dam Commune. It is an issue dating back to 1953, when Cambodia achieved independence from France. Vietnam stated it would take 60 percent of the land, and leave 40 percent to Cambodia. Cambodian opposition parties strongly contest the deal and previously tore out Vietnam demarcation border posts, on the grounds that they are on Cambodian land.

Chev, Prach. “Cambodia Asserts Sovereignty Over Disputed Border Area With Vietnam.” Radio Free Asia. November 4, 2015.

Dara, Mech. “Vietnam Agrees to Hasten Border Demarcation.” The Cambodia Daily. October 30, 2015.

Vietnam affirms sovereignty over central area that borders Cambodia.” Tuoi Tre News. November 3, 2015.

Vietnam, Cambodia advance border province cooperation.” Ho Chi Minh City. October 28, 2015.

China Provides Cambodia with Missiles

China and Cambodia recently signed an assistance deal, in which China is providing Cambodia with “shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.” Cambodia and China are long-standing allies. China has also offered to help with Cambodia’s military training and the construction of its military academies. Moreover, China is the biggest investor in Cambodia and purchases the bulk of its natural resource exports. The deal followed a contentious meeting in which other ASEAN countries challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Sokheng, Vong. Chinese defence boss brings military aid. The Phnom Penh Post. November 6, 2015.

Sokrith, Ban and Phun Chan Ousaphea. “Stand Strong, Defense Minister Tells Military.” Khmer Times. November 5, 2015.

Thul, Prak Chan. “China supplies Cambodia with anti-aircraft hardware in new military aid.” Reuters. November 6, 2015.

News In Review: Cambodia – October 28, 2015

photo credit: Reuters

Cambodia’s tense détente between the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the 35-year-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) grew more uneasy as two CNRP lawmakers were attacked outside the National Assembly this week. Hun Sen continues to consolidate power within his government, and Cambodia continues to accept refugees from Australia, while rejecting them from Vietnam.

CNRP Lawmakers attacked outside the Cambodian National Assembly

On October 26, two lawmakers, Kung Sophea and Nhay Chamraoen, members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), were brutally assaulted outside of the National Assembly by supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). It happened while thousands of people gathered outside the building, demanding that Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), step down. Witnesses claim that many of the protesters were police forces in civilian clothing. Tension between the two parties rose earlier this year as the CNRP accused accusing neighboring Vietnam of encroaching on Cambodia’s side of the border. Prime Minister Hun Sen maintains favorable relations with Vietnam.

Cambodia: New Violence Against Opposition.” Human Rights Watch. October 27, 2015.

Demonstrators beat up 2 Cambodian opposition lawmakers.” Associated Press. October 26, 2015.

Takihiro, Chea. CNRP Lawmakers Beaten Outside of National Assembly. Khmer Times. October 26, 2015.

Vietnamese Montagnard Refugees Live in Limbo in Cambodia

Thirteen ethnic Montagnard Christian refugees, from the central highlands of Vietnam, have been ordered by the Cambodian Government to voluntarily return to Vietnam by February 6, 2016 (a recently extended date), or be resettled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to a third country by January 10, 2016. The Montagnards are a Christian minority claiming to be escaping religious and political persecution in Vietnam. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warns that forced return of the refugees and unregistered asylum seekers “would constitute refoulement,” as Cambodia is party to the Geneva Refugee Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Cuddy, Alice. “UN urges against repatriating Montagnards.” The Phnom Penh Post. October 26, 2015.

Kitya, Tha. “Cambodia Extends Deportation Deadline For Asylum-seeking Montagnards.” Radio Free Asia. October 21, 2015.

Wright, George and Aun Pheap. Deadlines for Montagnards Pushed Back, Ministry Says. The Cambodia Daily. October 21, 2015

Australia sends Refugees to Cambodia

Australia holds 1,565 asylum-seekers – 1,359 men, 114 women and 92 children at detention and offshore asylum processing centers on Nauru and Manus Island, island nations northeast of Australia. The conditions in the centers have been deemed deplorable. Australia made a deal with Cambodia, promising $55 million dollars (approximately $40 million USD), in exchange for Cambodia taking refugees. Thus far, only four refugees have agreed to resettle to Cambodia. Australia has been accused “dumping” refugees on other Asia-Pacific Islands, while policy analysts observe that while Australia historically contributes aid money with the expectation that Cambodia will improve its human rights record, no such accountability can be made with this money going forth.

Anderson, Stephanie and Dan Conifer. “Refugee transferred to Cambodia returns to Myanmar; Shorten slams ‘pathetic’ $55m deal.” ABC Australia. October 15, 2015.

Jackson, Will. “Refugee deal has hidden bonuses: policy analyst.” The Phnom Penh Post. October 24, 2015.

Refugee Resettled In Cambodia Returns To Myanmar: Australia.” Khmer Times. October 16, 2015.

Prime Minister Hun Sen struggles to fend off criticism; appoints son as head of Intelligence at the Ministry of Defense

Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to consolidate family power in the government with the recent appointment of his son Hun Manith as head of intelligence at the Ministry of Defense. Three of Hun Sen’s sons hold a position in the government. Considered an architect of peace following the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen has held power for thirty years in Cambodia, which is technically a democratic country. He held a bloody coup to retain his rule in 1997, and many believe that his recent move signals fear of insecurity regarding the 2018 election against the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). His recent trip to France was met with large protests. And, he has exclaimed that a win for the CNRP will mean a return to the Khmer Rouge. Many of Hun Sen’s close allies have gotten used to a life of “luxury” since the takeover from the Khmer Rouge, and have expressed that they do not want to lose access to that lifestyle.

Hun Sen’s Second Son Promoted to Intelligence Chief.” Voice of America, Khmer. October 23, 2015.

Moniroth, Morm. “Cambodia’s Hun Sen Names Son Head of Military’s Intelligence Department.” Radio Free Asia. October 22, 2015.

Willemyns, Alex. “Hun Sen, Pondering Defeat, Has War on Mind.” The Cambodia Daily. October 26, 2015.

News in Review – Cambodia

October 1, 2015

Cambodian garment workers have been striking and protesting since May, advocating for an increase in their current $128 USD monthly minimum wage.

The International Labor Organization, Human Rights Watch, and international human rights groups have raised concerns over workers being underpaid, overworked, sexually harassed, and discriminated against if pregnant. Moreover, thousands of garment workers have fainted on the job since 2011 due to malnourishment, overwork, and poor air circulation in the workplace. According to a Human Rights Watch report, workers have been ordered to fulfill daily quotas of 1500 clothing pieces, often working until 9 p.m. and receiving only 15 minutes to eat lunch.

Since 2013, workers have clashed with government forces while striking over wage disputes, forced overtime work, and prejudice against pregnant women. In 2014, five workers were fatally shot by Cambodian authorities during industry-wide protests. The firm DC Research recently conducted a survey examining garment workers’ expenses. Funded by the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, and international labor rights organizations IndustriALL Global Union and Solidarity Center, the survey was the first of its kind in six years. Union members interviewed 745 garment workers across Cambodia. Findings revealed that monthly expenditures, including remittances back to families in rural communities, averaged $207.50 USD per person. To keep up with expenses, many workers try to support themselves with second jobs and working overtime.

Cambodia’s 28-member Labor Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet this week to negotiate a newly proposed minimum wage for the country’s 700,000 garment workers. However, the committee’s seven union leaders cannot agree on a recommended wage. Given the recent survey findings, some leaders want to propose a $207 minimum wage, while others are more cautiously proposing an increase of only 10-15 percent. The Labor Ministry’s Spokesman Heng Sour claims that the unions will lose their right to negotiate if the seven members cannot agree on a single proposed rate.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), states that the only acceptable increase in wage would reflect the inflation rate, which is less than three percent. He insists that they cannot afford any further increase, given competition from other countries, notably Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia’s garment industry makes up approximately one-third of its national GDP. He also claims that workers take home more than revealed in the survey and dismisses the survey and foreign involvement as malicious and “disruptive.” Labor rights advocates, including William Conklin, Country Director for Solidarity Center, anticipate that an $80 wage increase will not be accepted, especially when union leaders do not have a unified voice nationally. Moreover, it is expected that clothing brands themselves could best influence the wage debate. Representatives from brands such as H&M, Arcadia, and C&A were in the country last week discussing the wage increases, though no information has been released from their meetings. Advocates are concerned that even if the wage increases, landlords and stores in proximity to the garment factories will respond by raising prices.

The minimum wage issue reflects a deeper struggle in the working class, stemming back to the Khmer Rouge regime. During the regime, schools were closed and intellectuals eradicated, in attempts to achieve a classless, agrarian society. Today, half of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 25 and the vast portion of the working class remains undereducated and holds no professional working skills. Many workers, primarily women, migrate from rural towns into Phnom Penh to work in garment factories. These workers endure long, arduous working conditions, often with the priority to send money back to their families.

Negotiations between government, employers, and unions are slated to continue through the week.

Photo credit: World Bank

The views expressed by Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Interns are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.


Carmichael, Robert. “HRW: Cambodia Failing to Protect Garment Workers.” Voice of America. 12 Mar. 2014.

Carmichael, Robert. “Pilot Project to Boost Nutrition for Cambodian Garment Workers.” Voice of America. 14 Oct. 2014.

Cox, Jonathan. “Garment Workers Want More Pay to Cover Costs.” Khmer Times. 21 Sept. 2015.

Dara, Mech and Zsombor Peter, “Government Tells Unions to Pick a Minimum Wage or Lose Their Say.” The Cambodia Daily. 23 Sept. 2015.

Mony, Serey and Samean Yun. “Garment Workers Demand Cambodian Government Resolve Employment Issue.” Radio Free Asia. 21 Sept. 21, 2015.

Reaksmey, Hul. “Manufacturers Say They Can’t Raise Wage to $207 Per Month.” Voice of America, Cambodia: Khmer. 22 Sept. 2015.

Work Faster or Get Out: Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry.” Human Rights Watch. 11 March 2015.

IPJ Trains Women in Politics in Lead-up to Elections in Cambodia

From March 20 to April 2, 2013, IPJ Interim Executive Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia to conduct trainings for women in politics. The trip was a follow-up to last year’s trainings, and was again organized by Khmer Ahimsa, an NGO headed by Woman PeaceMaker Thavory Huot.


“I have, since I saw you last, been working to bring other women into politics — but women have many responsibilities and it’s hard to convince them that this is important. So I am here to get more tools to do so.”


Our return to Cambodia was met with many similar statements. Dee and I were inspired not only by the passion and self-determination of participants, but how through our few days together they gained confidence and built trust, particularly across party lines. Eager to get as much out of our and their time together they even requested we start at 7:30 a.m. instead of 8:30, one woman staying until just two hours before her wedding!


In Barsedth (west of Phnom Penh), where the sun beats down mercilessly on the dusty ground, we found ourselves in the presence of 28 women leaders in brightly colored sarongs. The women included commune councilors, village chiefs, district education and women’s affairs officials, and the deputy district governor for the impoverished and underdeveloped area.


Training participants brainstorm their notion of an ideal leader

As participants introduced themselves we discovered that this was, for some of them, their first encounter with women from other districts in the province. Shy but eager, they jumped into each exercise and discussion with increasing energy as their first day together passed. They were oriented to local solutions, not expecting NGOs or outsiders to be the source of resolving issues — issues that ranged from access to community water pumps to convincing rural couples to get birth certificates for their newborns.




Back in Phnom Penh, our training brought together participants from the capital with women from three other provinces, including a number of women who participated in our training last year. Many shared that they had utilized the tools and skills learned to bring one or two, and in some cases even three, new women on board — an amazing feat in a context in which women are not encouraged to move out of their traditional family roles, and where a clampdown on freedom of speech, assembly and movement in anticipation of elections later this year provides little motivation.


As we discussed challenges together, and shared a recent Al Jazeera report on gang rape in Cambodia, the necessity of working across party lines in order to affect change grew increasingly apparent. “Women hold the key to sustainable peace,” participants voiced one after another.


“We must be brave,” explained one woman, “so that women can play a role in decision making, and issues such as this can be addressed.”

Building Bridges in Cambodia

From March 25-30, 2012, IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia to conduct trainings requested from women in politics, NGOs and youth organizations during the Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network meetings in December.


Women in the Political Sphere: Enhancing Participation and Strengthening Influence
By IPJ Program Officer Zahra Ismail
March 26-27

As we entered the training room on the first day, 30 women turned to greet us, pressing their palms together at the chest and lowering their eyes with a slight bow. We were early, but the women from three different districts around Phnom Penh were ready to begin the morning workshop on enhancing their participation and influence in local and national politics. Dee opened the day by sharing experiences of women involved in decision-making worldwide, highlighting the importance of women’s participation if good governance is to be fostered anywhere.


Over the course of two days, Dee and I provided participants with skills and tools to communicate with confidence, within their own party and across party lines, as well as with their constituents and the larger community. While the energy and engagement was at times confrontational early on, it remained stimulating and enlightening throughout.


Commune representatives (local administration) sharing visions for change in their communities

After meeting in groups with women from different parties to clarify the concerns they had in their communities, a young woman from the main opposition party was quick to come to the floor. Vibrantly direct, she was supported by everyone in the room when she said that domestic violence and poverty were concerns that she and others from the ruling party agreed they needed to work on together. Both shyness and confrontation fell by the wayside as the women shared concerns ranging from maternal health and poverty to gang and domestic violence and the paucity of women in leadership.


Aware that Cambodian women are not often encouraged to take leadership positions in their parties or even talk across party lines, we watched the women transition from quiet curiosity to active engagement and then, on the second day, to an essential realization: that they had more in common than they had ever been allowed to discover.


Seeing timidity and confrontation transform into intense, exploratory discussions, we ended the program with a sense that spaces had opened for the women to work together on the roadblocks to peace — a peace that is just and inclusive.


Youth and NGO Encounters: The Beginnings of Trust
By IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker
March 28-29

Roundtable with peace and human rights NGO leaders in Phnom Penh

In a society where reaching out to those in power and encouraging local responses to problems is often seen as defiant, NGO leaders face great challenges when it comes to trust and human rights.  Zahra and I had the chance to see how NGOs in Cambodia are motivating their communities when we met with a roundtable of NGO leaders to discuss the keys to community collaboration and peacebuilding. The 26 participants identified some of their primary issues and looked for ways to garner greater attention from the community. But it was the next day that we saw even greater hope kindled in a group of youth leaders who Thavory Huot, an IPJ Woman PeaceMaker from Cambodia, had arranged for us to meet.


Before we began our leadership training with 30 youth leaders in Phnom Penh, Zahra and I had been reading an article in The Phnom Penh Post, “Beer girls fight for their rights,” and were expecting to meet a group of educated and/or unemployed youth seeking ways to have more influence in their communities. So we were surprised when our expected group was joined by some very unexpected young trade union leaders and activists. It was a first encounter for everyone, due to Cambodia’s political undertone of containment by those in power. And we had already heard, and seen, that any dissent or support of exchanges across political parties, religions or social classes was uncommon.


Dee Aker exploring communication tools to advance common goals with youth leaders in Phnom Penh

But the young people discovered they shared the same vision for leadership and many common issues of concern: unemployment and fair wages; increased drug use among disillusioned youth; domestic violence; and rising tension among religious and social groups. One young woman who works in a beer hall said, “It is as if society has abandoned not only us, but our families and communities too.” A young man who had been to college told us this was his first time looking at the challenges low wage workers and young women faced. And another young man from a youth organization felt it was important to now support the young women and men he had just met.


By the end of a warm day, the heat and the energy in the room had not diminished. The call for more techniques to identify and deal with their common problems was clear:

“As a youth, I want to spend my life meaningfully.”
“I want to meet these new friends again and work with them.”
“It was a new thing to learn how to organize and think and communicate in this way. And I will share these ideas with the union workers, too.”

After nearly 30 comments like these, Zahra and I left to pack our bags, quite content that it had been a very short week, but a very good one.


Building Connections and Inspiring Hope: Women PeaceMakers in Cambodia

In early December 2011, IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia for the third Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network summit. The seven-day gathering, organized by IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Thavory Huot, provided opportunities to meet with youth, women farmers, Buddhist and Islamic community groups, as well as NGOs and women in political posts locally and nationally. The gathering was supported with funds from UN Women.


“We’re here to connect with each other’s efforts, so let’s get started!” This was the invitation from one of the IPJ Women PeaceMakers (WPMs) as we introduced ourselves during our very first roundtable dinner with a group of women activist leaders in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh.


As we went around the table listening to the experiences and key challenges facing Cambodian civil society, one that continued to come up both during dinner and in the days that followed was a lack of connectedness, especially among women in civil society. As one young activist put it, “We are still so far away from an us in civil society. We’re very fragmented, there is no collective we.”


WPM meeting with Cambodian women farmers

The next morning as the sun spilled out across the sky, our team of Asian Women PeaceMakers gathered with 30 women farmers representing three districts around Phnom Penh. Along with fresh coconut juice, the women shared openly and passionately the challenges they are facing: lack of education, ongoing situations of abuse and resistance to their attempts to strengthen their voices and those of other women in the political sphere. The number of women who are active in local or national government positions is very small, and the particular trials women face are for the most part overlooked. Again the question echoed: How can we better connect with one another and encourage women’s active participation in peacebuilding in our communities?


WPM Thavory Huot discussing justice challenges in Cambodia

WPM Mary Ann Arnado of the Philippines, speaking with compassion and humility, told of her experience bringing together more than 10,000 internally displaced persons to demand a ceasefire in Mindanao. As she spoke of their success, images of the thousands of people lining the roadway with their signs demanding the ceasefire appeared in the background. Then Cambodian WPM Thavory Huot shared her personal, painful efforts in the enormous task of disarmament in Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge. She too had witnessed success because of her struggles, and she urged the women gathered not to give up.


This exchange of stories and strategies filled the room with hope, and began to plant the seeds of connection between the women from different districts who were present. This continued throughout the seven-day summit. The WPMs shared their stories and exchanged ideas and strategies with civil society leaders, women’s groups, political leaders, local NGO staff and a group of young Buddhist women who are students and tailors, as well as a Muslim women’s cooperative in Battambang Province in northwestern Cambodia.


Throughout our meetings with local organizations and groups, the topic of the challenges and action needed to ensure implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 in Asia surfaced. In both formal and informal conversations, the WPMs discovered a common necessity and desire to monitor and work together to operationalize Resolution 1325 throughout Asia.


Understanding that Resolution 1325 requires parties in conflict to respect women’s rights, the women wanted to learn how to call on it to support women’s participation in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction. The women felt they could play a significant role in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, and saw their participation as vital in the process of maintaining peace and security. However, despite the resolution’s passing more than 10 years ago, Cambodia and many other countries in Asia and around the world have yet to develop national action plans as a first step in its implementation. The United States only recently – in December 2011 – began exploring how it will launch its own.


Asian Women PeaceMakers (l-r) Manjula Pradeep, Thavory Huot, Bae Liza Saway, Mary Ann Arnado, Shobha Shrestha and Zarina Salamat

Sitting together on the last day of the summit, the Women PeaceMakers explored options and made plans for their Asia Regional Network’s development and growth in 2012. Ideas for approaches, activities and strategies around their common 1325 goal emerged, and a newfound sense of motivation planted itself in the group. With strengthened relations and partnerships, new insights and tools to use in their own work, and an agenda for collective action for the new year, the final strategy session came to a close.


“I feel rejuvenated and confident that I can continue to do this work, and that I am not, ever, alone,” reflected one PeaceMaker, capturing the essence of the summit. All of us left Cambodia looking forward to the next Asia Regional Network summit to be held in 2012 – and ready for the work ahead.


Click here for the first post about the summit, describing the current situation in Cambodia.

Setting the Stage: Women PeaceMakers in Cambodia

In early December 2011, IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker and Program Officer Zahra Ismail were in Cambodia for the third Women PeaceMakers Asia Regional Network summit. The seven-day gathering, organized by IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Thavory Huot, provided opportunities to meet with youth, women farmers, Buddhist and Islamic community groups, as well as NGOs and women in political posts locally and nationally. The gathering was supported with funds from UN Women.


Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, Zahra and I quickly dropped our bags at a small hotel and headed out to the “Women’s Hearings: True Voices of Women during the Khmer Rouge Regime on Sexual Violence.” Theresa de Langis, a former Peace Writer (2007) who subsequently worked for UNIFEM/UN Women in Afghanistan, was facilitating these shadow hearings in Cambodia. Theresa also visited the IPJ in October, as the rapporteur for one of the U.S. civil society consultations on the formulation of a U.S. National Action Plan to implement U.N. Security Resolution 1325.


Temple devoted to the bones found in the Killing Fields

Here in Cambodia’s capital, the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of sexual violence under the Khmer Rouge Regime, along with statements from legal experts, were profoundly moving. These crimes have been rejected by the formal tribunals that are currently underway, and the Women’s Hearings are an informal effort at validation and redress for the atrocities women suffered. The call for an official tribunal was a key topic in the IPJ’s Global Women’s Court of Accountability back in 2005, but no one intended or expected that testimonies about the crimes against women would not be included in the tribunal for the mass murderers.


There were many young Cambodians in the hearing’s audience who were just discovering the true and vast horrors from the time of the Killing Fields. Fear, trauma and simply regaining a life had been the priorities for more than 20 years, so many parents had repressed, moved on from or even denied the terrors they saw and suffered. The loss of so many intellectuals, teachers and leaders, and the brainwashing and forced labor camps had a stifling impact on both truth and its recovery.


After the hearings, Wenny Kusuma, who heads the UN Women Cambodia office and has worked on women, peace and security issues for a number of years, joined us for updates and discussion. This intense first day of feeling, seeing and discussing the profound abuse of women’s rights set a very real stage for engagement with the IPJ Women PeaceMakers (WPM) of Asia arriving in the home of Cambodian WPM Thavory Huot.


Skulls that now rest in the temple

By December 9, Zarina Salamat of Pakistan, Manjula Pradeep of India, and Mary Ann Arnado and Bae Liza Saway of the Philippines joined us as Thavory gave a first orientation to Cambodia with a visit to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21), now the Cambodian Genocide Museum. It is estimated that one-third of the population were killed or died of starvation and disease during the 1975-1979 reign of the Khmer Rouge. Dith Pran’s story in the film “The Killing Fields” is devastatingly palpable here, as you walk quietly from mass grave to mass grave and to the tree where babies’ little bodies were smashed, all the while imagining the “patriotic music” that covered the sounds of dying. After this awakening to one of the most horrific crimes of the last century, the beautiful glass spiral of the pagoda-like structure where the skulls and bones are now honored, layer upon layer, cannot leave your thoughts or prayers.


One of the victims of the Khmer Rouge

This week “Brother Number 2” Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue of the Khmer Rouge, admitted vaguely that “perhaps” he had committed war crimes against humanity after hearing the Khmer Rouge tribunal presiding judge list some of the crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, enslavement, forced transfer, imprisonment, torture, persecution on political grounds and genocide. As we walked in humility and tears through the prison where thousands of photos of children, women and men stared back at us, and past the rooms where they were tortured, it seemed odd that there is so little awareness of the tribunal or its shadow hearing for women. Like the Hiroshima and Holocaust museums illustrating the human capacity for unimaginable abuse, people should reflect here on what happened and how it must be prevented from happening again. There are lessons here – for Cambodians and the world.


By the evening we were joined by our sixth member, Shobha Shesthra from Nepal, who hosted the first Asian Women PeaceMakers Regional Network meeting early in 2011. This was the opening to a very interesting week of discovering more needs and discussing how the Asian Women PeaceMakers might work together on their common issues and challenges.


Click here for the second post about the summit, detailing the rest of the Women PeaceMakers Cambodian summit.