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Cambodia Criticized for Curtailing Freedom of Expression

Cambodia has been accused of silencing critics with lawsuits, jail time, and assassinations. Cambodia's opposition leader says the crackdown is the government's attempt to deal with what he claims is a growing discontent over the economy and who benefits from economic growth.

At a panel discussion Tuesday at the Bangkok press club, the Cambodian government was accused of doing everything in its power to muzzle voices critical of its policies.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy says grassroots activists, politicians, and village leaders have been killed, jailed, and forced into hiding for disagreeing with the ruling party.

He says the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is attempting to silence growing discontent over land confiscation and most Cambodians not benefiting from the growing economy.

Sam Rainsy says part of the problem is that many of Cambodia's leaders like Hun Sen are former Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist government that ruled in the 1970s and was responsible for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians.

"They still have the Khmer Rouge mentality," he said. "They do not tolerate critics and they are paranoid. They see enemies everywhere around them and they take preemptive moves to eliminate their enemies or potential enemies by killing them, by silencing them."

Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists Vice President Duong Hak Samrithy says recent defamation lawsuits against outspoken media by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party shows a clear pattern of intolerance. He says journalists have also been targets of violence that he linked to the government.

"Until now, about, around 10 journalists has been assassinated," said Samrithy. "But, there is no clue, no lead has been declared by the police, even a single case. So, you can say this is a clear attempt of the CPP to silence the opposition press."

Duong Hak Samrithy says international donors, who keep Cambodia's government running, should use their leverage to pressure the government on rights issues.

But a lecturer in International Relations at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, Puangthong Pawakapan, says major donors like Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are showing little willingness to pressure Phnom Penh.

"The task, while we cannot hope much from the governments of these countries, the donors and ASEAN, and the major investors, I think, the task will be left on the international NGOs and local NGOs inside Cambodia," said Puangthong.

The panel was organized by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a non-profit rights group based in Bangkok that campaigns for press freedom in Southeast Asia.