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


Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay


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.

Looking for Camp 32: A Personal Journey into Cambodia’s Dark Past


Film review by Samaya Borom

Camp 32 | Hom Chhorn

Known colloquially as the Land of Smiles, Cambodia is a place deeply affected by its dark past. Hidden behind the friendly facade are generations struggling to come to terms with the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge committed indiscriminately against its own population.

During the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge party rose to power. Looking to create a communist utopia called Democratic Kampuchea where the population worked to sustain the Party and its principles of a shared agricultural economy, the Khmer Rouge set up forced labour camps where almost two to three million people lost their lives. These camps existed all over Cambodia and culminated in one of the world’s worst genocide acts, yet little is known about these camps and many are not officially documented.

Camp 32  is one man’s harrowing personal story of survival from 32, a labour camp deep in the Battambang province where the majority of the land is covered by jungle and mountainous ranges.

At just six years old, Hom Chhorn was imprisoned at Camp 32 and this experience shaped not only his life, but the life of his family who lost their father and brothers, murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

Setting out to understand his past so that it informs his future, Hom decides to locate Camp 32, a journey which is advised against by both his ailing mother and sister who remember only too well the violations that befell not only their family, but thousands of other families before and after them.

Hom is driven in part by the need to tell the story of the forgotten camp on behalf of his elderly mother before she passes, but also because he needs to seek answers to his own questions, especially given his young age and vulnerability when he was removed from the family and sent to the children’s labour section of the camp.

Camp 32 is as much a film about the personal quest of Hom in putting together stories and memories of his past as it is about the collective remembering of the abominations that were committed during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Hom’s difficulty in locating official documentation from the Cambodian National Archives, the Library and even the United Nations about 32 highlights the inherent difficulties that survivors encounter when looking for information about a dark period in time that profoundly shaped their lives.

“Hom’s desire to return to a place that was the source of such brutality and sadness in order to tell the story of his family, and indeed many other forgotten victims, is memorable and laudable.”

Collective memory is often relied upon due to a lack of documentation, official or otherwise. The team behind the film are currently in the process of having Camp 32 officially recognised, something that will go some way toward acknowledging the horror of what occurred throughout the whole of Cambodia.

Unspeakable acts, horrific accounts of torture, and death of family members under the Khmer Rouge often make it difficult for survivors to vocalise their experiences, so Hom is considered extremely lucky when he is unexpectedly reunited with some of the children of 32.

The reunited friends provide further insight into life under the Khmer Rouge and it’s clear that there will always be an unbreakable bond between them due to their shared experiences as children trying to survive the horror of a totalitarian dictatorship that killed their families and friends.

Interspersed with footage of contemporary Cambodia and Hom’s family’s deeply personal accounts of life in the camp, the film captures the ever present dichotomy between good and evil, and a country of people that cannot move forward without understanding how its past contributes to their future.

Hom’s desire to return to a place that was the source of such brutality and sadness in order to tell the story of his family, and indeed many other forgotten victims, is memorable and laudable.

Given the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and the systematic genocide it committed, Camp 32 is unmissable viewing as it tells the tale of survivors, and in turn gives a voice to those victims who should not be forgotten or overlooked.

Caption: Hom Chhorn.

Find out more about Camp 32 here.

Originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia