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Cambodian Activists Struggle to Mobilize Nervous Public to Demand Greater Human Rights

Cambodian activists have vowed to continue their struggle to free human rights activists jailed on what are widely seen as politically motivated charges. They are asking for outside help to stop the erosion of democracy, but Western influence may have little impact on the Hun Sen government. Cambodians are increasingly being left to make changes for themselves.

A small group of men and women gathers in one of Phnom Penh's Buddhist pagodas to pray for peace and democracy in Cambodia. Monks bless the group, which is marking the start of a nationwide campaign to free Cambodia's leading human rights leaders from jail.

They have gathered a week after police arrested Kem Sokha, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, along with his deputy director, Pa Nguon Teang, and Yeng Virak, director of the Cambodian Legal Education Center.

The three were charged with criminal defamation by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, for displaying a banner criticizing a border treaty Hun Sen had signed with Vietnam.

Cambodia's territorial integrity has been a sensitive issue ever since Vietnam drove the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime out of the country in 1979 - and then stayed on to occupy the country for 10 years. Hun Sen's signing of the treaty with Vietnam in October - which critics say gave too much land to Vietnam - exacerbated sensitivities over the relationship between Hanoi and Phnom Penh.

A journalist and a union president were jailed in October for criticizing the prime minister over the treaty.

However, Naly Pilorge, director of the local rights group Licadho, says the arrests of the three human rights activists on December 31 and January 4 galvanized their supporters into action.

"We are a traumatized society. There's no doubt about it," he said. "But with each crisis, what happens is we look at each other, and that gives us strength. And with the unity and the solidarity, the fears, the anger, is transformed to courage and hope."

A coalition of 63 civic groups has launched a nationwide campaign demanding freedom of expression. Organizers are sending phone text messages directing the public to peaceful demonstrations. And rights groups are asking a hesitant people to stamp their thumbprints on petitions calling for the activists' release.

Kem Sokha, one of the three detained men, was well known through his radio news and call-in program, and there was strong support among the general public for his cause for better governance. But the arrests have now given people second thoughts about challenging the government openly.

Chea Vannath is director of the Center for Social Development, a social policy research institute. She says most Cambodians are not ready for the democracy that rights groups are calling for. She says citizens want political reform, but because many of them are still traumatized by the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge period, they prefer to avoid conflict.

Chea Vannath says democracy is a Western concept that was imported by the United Nations during its peacekeeping mission in the early 1990's, and made more attractive by foreign consultants and foreign aid. Now those have less influence, and without a critical mass of support from the local community, she says, democracy is slipping away.

"And after U.N. left, it's just fading away little by little. Why? Because there's nothing there. It's just an illusion of democracy. The mirage of democracy. And the mirage disappeared," she said. "So the natural forms come out."

The natural form, she says, is the political situation in such countries as Singapore, China and Thailand - where strong central governments tolerate little opposition.

The world has started to take notice of developments in Phnom Penh. The United Nations has said the Cambodian government now has all the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime. The World Bank, the International Labor Organization and Amnesty International have voiced similar concerns.

The criticism has led many Cambodians to believe that the international community can help restore democracy. But the influence of the Western democracies over Cambodia's leaders is waning, in part because China is gaining influence by giving Phnom Penh unconditional aid.

Chea Vannath says the West doles out as much criticism as aid. She says the Cambodian government is now asking itself which benefactor is easier to manage - China or the United States.

"Cambodia is at the crossroads to have its own self-reliance, self-motivation," she said. "Because for the last 12 years, the [aid] money keep coming every year, and now it become time that the government said, enough is enough, we don't care about your aid."

Hun Sen last week defended the arrests, and urged the international community to understand the challenge he faces in establishing political and social stability in this traumatized country. He called on foreign governments to consider the entire nation, not just a few people.

Alex Sutton, country director of the International Republican Institute, says strong comments from foreign donors will only have a limited impact on the government. He says change must come from within.

"Honestly, I think the response that is most important, it's the Cambodian community, it's the indigenous NGOs within the country that are really stepping up and meeting the challenge, and being quite brave in how they're voicing their outrage over this," said Sutton.

The authorities are placing obstacles in the way of the petition campaign. Police have confiscated petitions and warned people not to stamp them. In response to activists' plans to walk to the Royal Palace and deliver the petitions to the king, the Phnom Penh governor declared that no one would be walking for free speech in his city.

The movement did win a small victory on January 11 when Yeng Virak was released on bail, a privilege rarely granted to political prisoners. Rights groups called the release a step in the right direction - but they say the road to change has just begun.