Critical assessment of the human rights situation in Cambodia with simultaneous consideration of the country´s historical context

Essay, 2011

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3




2. The Heritage of Cambodia’s Recent History and the Influence of Religion

3. Current Human Rights Issues
3.1. The State of the Media
3.2. Freedom of Expression and Assembly
3.3. Violence against Girls and Women
3.4. Corruption of Government Bodies and Impunity
3.5. Forced Evictions
3.6. Acid Attacks

4. Conclusion

5. Appendix

1. Introduction

If you will ever visit Cambodia, you will soon notice that it is virtually impossible not to fall in love with that little, but extraordinarily fascinating country. The amiable and ever-smiling Khmer (the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia), the rich history and heritage of the country, and the beautiful jungles and beaches appeal to visitors since Portuguese adventurers first set foot in the country in the 16th century.

But at the same time, the country also has a dark side, originating from its long history of war and violence. Even today, as Cambodia slowly learns to come to terms with its past, things are far from perfect. While human rights are violated on a daily basis, an increasingly autocratic state seems to be more concerned about the interests of the rich and powerful than about those of the whole of the population.

In this essay I am going to investigate the current human rights situation in Cambodia by examining reports of national and international human rights organizations, press reports, and books. I will also try to find out which role the violent past of Cambodia and the distinctive peaceableness of its Buddhist population play in this context.

2. The Heritage of Cambodia’s Recent History and the Influence of Religion

As stated above, Cambodia´s history has been violent most of the time. From the 9th to the 13th century the rulers of the Khmer Empire used force to conquer large parts of South-East Asia and built a vast empire, governed from its capital Angkor with its still breathtaking temples. But after that golden age, the Khmer Empire shrank from century to century and finally had to flee under the protective shield of French colonialism in 1863 to get protection from its aggressive neighbours. After 90 years of colonial rule had ended in 1953, Cambodia entered a comparably peaceful time.

But it ended abruptly when the communist forces of the Khmer Rouge, whose rise had been triggered by the US bombardment of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, took over the country in 1975. Their stone-age communism claimed the lives of up to 1.7 million people (Yale 2011). The leftovers of their rule can still be seen all over Cambodia in form of stupas (mound-like structures), which are filled with the skulls of the killed. They are also a symbol of the deep religiosity of the Khmer people.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1. Detail of a sign with instructions for torture victims. Displayed in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh. Author

How did the experi-ence of this autogenocide influence the national psyche of the Cambodians? Did it change their perception of human rights? And which role plays the Buddhist religion, which demands peaceable-ness and the belief in des-tiny?

Something that might indirectly add to the bad human rights situation is the seeming indifference of many Cambodians towards their own suffering and those of others. But as Fawthrop and Jarvis (2005:140) point out, this behaviour may be attributable to the experience of the Khmer Rouge regime, where “men, women and children learned to contain and repress the horrors they had witnessed” in order to save their own lives. Empathy with victims was as dangerous as speaking out for them. And at least the Cambodians who have experienced the terrible times of the Khmer Rouge have seen so many atrocities such as public torture and executions that they had to become uncompassionate in order to stay sane (Tayner 2008:156).

Inevitably, this behaviour left scars in the national psyche. A Cambodian medical sociologist is quoted saying that “untreated mental health problems among Cambodians have become an epidemic, but the government is not addressing the issue” (Fawthorp/Jarvis op cit:141). The authors also present a survey by the Cambodian Centre for Social Development on the Khmer Rouge trials, in which the majority of the participants voted in favour of a trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders, but in which one third also expressed concerns that a trial will be disadvantageous for a true national reconciliation (Fawthorp/Jarvis ibid 144).

This is due to the fact that many Khmer are afraid that a trial could reopen old sores and lead to a new war. And it shows to which extent the trauma of the Khmer Rouge years still inflicts the way in which Khmer think and act today.

The fact that the crimes of the Khmer Rouge have until recently never been brought to court has made the Khmer deeply suspicious of the legal system. When the top Khmer Rouge leaders were extradited by Thailand under the condition that they remained free in Cambodia, the trust in the courts and the government was further undermined. Additionally, many generals, politicians, and even the prime minister have been members of the Khmer Rouge (Robinson et al. 2010:43). The inclusion of the Khmer Rouge defectors into the government ended a 30-year long war. But the price was that the culture of impunity was further cemented.

There is also a religious trait in the Cambodian character which makes its owner more prone to human rights violations: the concept of the loss of the face. It is highly embarrassing for a Cambodian to get upset and to show a face taut with anger (to lose control over the face). But when a person is known to be less defensive, it is also easier for others to exploit its good-naturedness. This concept of the loss of face also requires Cambodians to suppress feelings such as grief and sadness (Barad et al. 2007:441).

Other religious factors have to be considered as well. On the one hand the strong belief in Buddhism helps Khmer to deal with the many injustices and human right violations they are subjected to. In the Buddhist concept of Karma, only people who live a life without sins will be reborn as humans. Sinners “will be reborn as a slimy form of life, that lives in dirty, muddy places” (Barad et al. ibid:442). But on the other hand this belief makes faithful Cambodians also vulnerable, because it forbids them to hurt or kill other persons, even if they do them injustice (Barad et al. op cit:445). Instead, Buddhism offers only one solution to deal with hate and powerful emotions: “to recognize their source and to let them disappear because such emotions, like everything else in the world, are impermanent” (Barad et al. op cit:445).

3. Current Human Rights Issues

3.1. The state of the media

Press freedom in Cambodia is declining. While the country has a large number of radio stations, TV channels and private media outlets (especially in comparison with its South-East Asian neighbours), the government has also found a variety of ways to intimidate and silence the ones who are too critical.

While Cambodia’s internet environment has been comparably free in recent times, there now seems to be a deterioration of the situation. Cambodia’s government reportedly blocked the access to several critical blogs in the early months of 2011 and arrested one Cambodian office worker who had printed out a site from the critical blog KI Media (LICADHO 2010b).

Furthermore, the legal system is used to silence critics. A new penal code, which came into effect in 2010, brought new vague and subjective definitions of crimes such as contempt and libellous slander into use. They can now be penalised with long prison sentences. And the government makes use of its new capabilities: the Club of Cambodian Journalists reported, that from May 2009 to May 2010 twenty-four journalists had been arrested and ten had been sued “by members of the government or its inner circle” (Virak 2010). This leads to self-censorship among Cambodian journalists. One is quoted: “I used to write 100 percent of the truth, but now I’ve reduced it to about 30 percent” (CCHR 2010b:24).

Fortunately, none have been killed in recent times. But since 1992, a total of eight journalists have been murdered in the country, the last in 2008 (CPJ 2010). This situation is one of the reasons why Cambodia’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index is getting worse and worse (Data from Reporters Without Borders (RWB 2010)).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

3.2. Freedom of Expression and Assembly

This universal human right has also been violated many times. A report by a Cambodian human rights organization found over 50 violations of freedom of expression in six months time (LICADHO 2010a).

An often corrupt and prejudiced legal system makes it increasingly difficult to express views in Cambodia. A new law on non-violent demonstrations, which passed in late 2009, restricted freedom of expression and association by limiting the number of people who are allowed to take part in a strike or demonstration to 200 (Klein 2010). And in 2009 70% of all peaceful demonstrations were cracked down violently by the armed forces (ADHOC 2009). Often they are forbidden before they can even take place.

Defamation laws are misused to pursue political opponents, who are stripped of their immunity and brought to court because they have criticized important persons. Prime Minister Hun Sen stated about an opponent that “to lift [his] parliamentary immunity will be as easy as peeling a boiled banana because [the CPP] has enough votes to do that” (COMFREL 2010:6). The most important case of lifting immunity occurred when opposition leader Sam Rainsy was controversially accused of inciting racial hatred. He had to flee to Australia in 2010 to escape conviction.

Also lawyers are threatened with the defamation law for explaining the standpoints of their clients (CCHR 2010b:21). This violates the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which provide that lawyers should not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes. This intimidation often leaves defendants without a lawyer, as nobody wants to touch their case anymore.

Union leaders are intimidated with defamation and libel accusations as well, and one of their most profiled ones, Chead Vichea, was even shot dead in 2004. Two individuals, who both had alibis for the time the crime happened and who were obviously scapegoats, were sentenced to 20 years in prison each (Cox 2009).

3.3. Violence against Girls and Women

Rape and sexual abuse of often young girls and sex workers increases, while the government does not enough to fight the the problem. In 2009 78% of rape victims who reported the crime to NGO’s were children (AI 2010a:6). Amnesty International says that especially male politicians do not acknowledge the severe trauma that rape causes. Victims struggle to get assistance by the police, have to pay for insufficient treatment themselves, and are furthermore stigmatized in their communities. Out of court settlements often fill the pockets of officials, who misappropriate parts of the compensation money (AI Ibid:5).

Children are also abused by sex tourists. However, most abuse is committed by Cambodians. Even policemen are accused of rape by some victims (AI op cit:17). A large number of rapes go unreported because victims feel that they will get no help from authorities. Gang rape of sex workers, cynically called “bauk”, which translates to plus (Snyder 2009), is increasing as well. To make things worse, 0.8 percent (75.000) of all Cambodians are infected with HIV (UoC 2009). Especially a large number of sex workers is infected. Customers or rapists who have intercourse without condom spread the disease further.

Victims blame themselves and are often accused by their families of having been careless. In contrast, rapists are stigmatized neither in their communities nor in prison. It is not uncommon, yet bizarre, that they offer their victims to marry them in order to restore their honour (AI op cit:17).

Cambodian men, women, and children are also trafficked for sexual and labour exploitation to neighbouring countries and the rest of the world. Men are trafficked for forced labour in the agriculture, fishing, and construction industries. Women are trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labour in factories or as domestic servants. Children are trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labour in organized begging rings, soliciting, street vending, and flower selling. Cambodia is also a destination country for women and children who are trafficked from Vietnam and China for sexual exploitation (CCHR 2010c:23).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Critical assessment of the human rights situation in Cambodia with simultaneous consideration of the country´s historical context
University of Lincoln  (Media and Humanities)
International Human Rights for Journalists
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Cambodia, Human Rights, Forced Eviction, Freedom of the press, Freedom of Expression and Assembly, Violence against Girls and Women, Corruption of Government Bodies and Impunity, Acid Attacks, Khmer Rouge, Rote Khmer, Kambodscha, mines, Minen, Prostitution, Säureangriffe, Vertreibung, Vergewaltigung, Rape, Vienam War, Vietnamkrieg, Tuol Sleng, Trauma, Karma, Hun Sen, Chad Vichea
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MA Urs Endhardt (Author), 2011, Critical assessment of the human rights situation in Cambodia with simultaneous consideration of the country´s historical context, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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