Stories from the Defenders: a review of Seeking Justice in Cambodia

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Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay

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Seeking Justice in Cambodia: Human Rights Defenders Speak Out

Sue Coffey

Melbourne University Publishing

Cambodia is a country that has experienced immense suffering due to the Khmer Rouge genocide under the leadership of Pol Pot in the late 1970s, Vietnamese invasion and ongoing socio-political and economic suppression. Modern Cambodia continues to struggle with the effects of autocratic rule and justice and human rights are continually challenged.

It is with this backdrop that Sue Coffey’s book Seeking Justice in Cambodia, Human Rights Defenders Speak Out sought out individuals within civil society organisations who actively fight for human rights and democracy in Cambodia. Coffey was a communications advisor attached to the NGO Forum on Cambodia during 2012-2013 and witnessed first-hand the impact that governmental corruption and lack of transparency in decision making can do to vulnerable communities.

Despite having human rights organisations in Cambodia since the early 1990s, the volatile political environment and lack of awareness amongst domestic and international scholars of human rights has meant that oppositional voices to the ruling government and its policies are hidden, or at the very least suppressed for fear of retribution.

Coffey has been able to document the stories of just some of these courageous individuals, firstly in order to preserve the authenticity of their experiences and secondly, to ensure wider dissemination of these stories as they make up the fabric of Cambodia’s human rights and democracy struggle. Featuring the stories of fifteen individuals, taken at various times, from founders of human rights leagues to president of a national party that recently ended up being arrested for treason to a land activist imprisoned for speaking out about corruption in land development between private developers and the ruling government, the book provides readers with a glimpse into the difficulties, and achievements of human rights defenders in a tightly controlled environment.

Some of the interviewees are in exile, such as Thun Saray the founder and President of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association who speaks frankly about the dangers of setting up such an organisation that promoted human rights and democracy. Other interviewees point to deep issues between religion, government and society with Coffey including the Venerable Loun Sovath, a Buddhist monk who has been banned by the Cambodian Buddhist hierarchy from seeking refuge in temples due to his vocal commitment to human rights and his questioning of forced evictions of people from areas of commercial interest as a person whose story needs to be shared.

Seeking Justice in Cambodia, Human Rights Defenders Speak Out is a collection of personal stories that provide real insight into the complexities of the human rights landscape in Cambodia, and stories which deserve to be disseminated and read widely. Coffey’s desire to memorialise the efforts of these individuals can only provide inspiration for others in following their path to being human rights defenders.

Originally published at Right Now.

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