Monday, July 18, 2016

Another Cambodian voice gets silenced

A reflection of another Cambodian voice gets silenced

The cold blooded murder in broad daylight of Kem Ley on July 10, 2016, broke my heart and the hearts of many Cambodians from all walks of life as well as those from the international community. I cannot help but to reflect on the repeated failure of our most trusted institutions to protect our own people.

Must life be short for those who dare to critique the current regime? It seems Cambodia has become a country where people cannot talk openly about equal justice, nepotism, corruption, deforestation, international involvement in illegal logging, the loss of border territory and the accumulated wealth of elected officials.

Cambodia does not adhere to the ideals of its constitution when extreme power overrides the rule of law. With these assassinations and lack of impartial investigations, the people have lost faith in their cherished institutions.

While the country is in mourning over the loss of another prominent political critic, repeatedly the political leaders in Cambodia have failed to understand the depth of the people’s resentment towards a system where well-connected individuals get richer and evade justice.

They have failed to see what people see – a country where the less fortunate are going through an existential crisis. They have failed to feel what people feel – the labour of finding food and the fear of holding onto their lands.

They have failed to do what the majority of the people want them to do, which is to serve the people by delivering justice and equal opportunity for all Cambodians. Lastly they have failed to heed one of the fundamental teachings of Buddha: “Hurt not others in ways that they themselves would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5:18).

Even though top government officials condemn the savage killing and reject the claim that this is another political act to silence the opposition and spread fear, the national and international communities at large have lost faith in the investigating authorities to find those responsible.

It has been revealed that Choub Salab (meaning Meet Kill), the assassin, lived in desperate poverty, so it defies belief that he could lend $3,000 to anyone. Furthermore, the fact that he never mentioned this loan to his wife leads us to doubt its veracity as well.

Most Cambodians as well as the international communities believe that Kem Ley’s assassination was politically motivated and the chain of command of the killing should be fully and independently investigated in line with international standards.

There is no real peace without real justice. Those in power must stop using violence, intimidation and oppression to discipline the populace to produce quiet obedience and stability. A relationship between the state and its people that emanates from coercion, repression and domination won’t produce enduring peace and nor long-term stability.

Today, Cambodia cries for justice and the right to free speech. These appeals are made for the soul of Kem Ley and other brave, outspoken heroes of the Kingdom, including union leader Chea Vichea (2004), and environmental activist Mr Chut Vuthy (2012) – May you all rest in peace.

Note that this reflection was in The Phnom Penh Post on 18 July 2016

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Doing Research in Cambodia: Making Models that Build Capacity

Dissemination of Doing Research Key Findings at Svay Rieng University on 12 January 2016 to more than 450 Students, Faculty, Researchers, and Government Official
“Doing Research in Cambodia: Making Models that Build Capacity”

Cambodia’s bitter and tragic past has had a detrimental impact on the number of educated professionals available to conduct endogenous research. It is therefore unsurprising that previous studies have found that social science research is frequently conducted by foreign consultants, while donors and external stakeholders often dictate the research agenda. To address this lack of endogenous research, there was still a need to profile the ongoing evolution of the Cambodian research lanscape and provide actionable recommendations to build future capacity on both sides of the policy-research community.

With support from the Global Development Network and the ‘Doing Research’ peer review workshop, a research team from CICP undertook a one year action research study to capture – and to help transform – the current state of Cambodian research. In early 2015, a roundtable of experts created a list of 25 institutions to interview, including both rural and urban universities (president, senior academic staff, faculty members, researchers, and students), NGOs, think tanks, donor representatives, and government ministries. Our bottom-up approach focused on giving voice to participants and achieving practical problem-solving outputs. It aimed to reduce dependence on donors in the long term by strengthening the endogenous capacity of the research community and improving collaborations between researchers.


Our findings show that the primary impediment to research is insufficient funds for research, training, and dissemination. The government cannot adequately fund projects necessary to guide policy decisions, as even the national census is donor financed. Furthermore, instructors and students are generally responsible for funding their own projects. Since universities are tuition-driven, instructors are given little time or money to conduct research. This implicitly communicates that research is a non-critical afterthought.

Respondents admitted that many staff lacks the ability to conduct research, while dissemination activities are limited. Researchers commonly present findings at academic workshops. Therefore findings, embedded in reports, often overly technical and written in English, remain largely inaccessible to wider audiences.

English proficiency proved another obstacle, preventing many Cambodian researchers from conducting literature reviews and increasing their workload when translating results for publication. With few academic publications, no accessible research database, and insufficient provincial libraries, research outreach is severely limited. And, since reports are written using technical English, it is unclear whom the research is targeting.

Due to funding and human resource limitations, most research is dictated by donors, led by outside consultants, and financed on a short-term basis. Consequently local capacity is stunted and short-term studies do not capture complex societal issues adequately. Donor institutions are often reticent to tackle controversial issues or report results without government consent.

Cambodian research production is at a transitional stage. While we found general ambivalence toward research among older interviewees, younger Cambodians demonstrated a growing enthusiasm and receptivity. Few women participated in our study due to a gender imbalance in senior positions. Equal opportunity policies and equal access to education are needed to reverse this trend. However, Cambodia is improving; as evidenced by the increasing number of female students in tertiary education.

The Policy-Research Environment

Policy-research connections are restricted by entrenched structural challenges. For instance, policy makers often lack the education required to understand reports. Perhaps Consequently, scientific research is often not perceived as valuable within this sector. As one government official admitted, “Government policy is not produced through research”. Instead government officials make policy decisions based predominantly on personal connections, entrenched beliefs, and potential profit. Some policy uptake indifference may be due to many researchers gearing their research toward academia.

Some NGOs can exert pressure on the government by publishing polished research that is read by foreign officials. Donor institutions with close governmental relationships can influence policy by avoiding flash point human rights issues and playing an important and constructive role on non-sensitive issues like job creation. However the most troubling human rights issues often remain either ignored or watered down.

The elephant in the room is that taboo, politically sensitive research topics remain too dangerous and difficult for most researchers to attempt. Results that are openly critical of the government are usually self-censored or diluted in order to avoid anticipated political pressure.

Going Forward

Our respondents made many constructive recommendations: increase institutional cooperation; mentor Cambodian staff/students; create collaborative research; plan research dissemination prior to collecting data; incentivise research; fund an accessible national research database; and promote capacity building.

There is cause for optimism. Respondents noted that the government increasingly uses local research on issues like migration flow and job creation. Human rights NGOs continue to have success using their research and international advocacy networks to pressure government on key issues. More universities are creating funds for research through international collaborations and even creating in-house publications.

This research project has provided an essential empirically-based understanding of the state of research in Cambodia and potential avenues for improvement. It also serves as a pioneer model for reciprocal, action research designed to build capacity within the research community. Specifically we went beyond data collection in 3 ways:
1.     Provided a research methods training course for students.
2.     Presented results at several institutions to increase dissemination and discussion.
3.     Created an on-going website ( to inform people about available funding and serve as a networking conduit.

It is our intention that this project, and the conversations that emerge from it, will play a part in transforming Cambodia’s research environment. There is still much to uncover about research in Cambodia but hopefully this study will provide an impetus for further research.

Please note this blog piece was also published on

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Barriers of Doing Research in Cambodia

From my experience in fieldwork activities to assess the research environment in Cambodia (5 HEIs and various ministries), most academics and government officials I interviewed are eager to learn and conduct research, but face a host of challenges and are prevented from doing research due to various constraints.

The most often cited barrier is the lack of funding freely available for research purposes. The government ministries and the HEIs rarely receive funding for any research projects. This leads to limited resources, lack of necessary facilities, and creates financial constraints, especially for academics who are unable to invest a lot of time for research, as they must teach long hours to support themselves. The department head of research that I interviewed at one university teaches seven classes.

The second dominant constraint is the lack of research capacity. While many of those I interviewed expressed enthusiasm for research, they did not know how or where to even begin to conduct research. For example, World Bank research projects often require a lot of cumbersome paperwork and rigorous rounds of applications. This lack of capacity is especially difficult to address as it requires higher education institutes to emphasize research methodology in their curriculum and to provide more guidance about research to its students. Most lecturers, deans, and department heads are not fully trained in doing research themselves.

The third strain is the lack of English skills. Most of the key informants I spoke to admitted that they are not proficient enough in the English language to write competitive proposals, do literature reviews and produce good reports. This study pinpoints the fact that the country needs more resources to help non-English speakers so the people are better equipped to do meaningful research. One of the vice presidents at Pannasastra University of Cambodia confirmed the importance of the English language as the international language of research and higher learning: “In the Cambodian language, we do not have enough vocabulary for technology, for research, teaching material, the Internet library – so we need the English language.”

It is clear to me that a strong culture of research is missing in Cambodian higher education institutes and government ministries. This is not because of a lack of desire, but due to the lack of opportunities provided by the current system. Cambodian society in general does not give priority, importance and value to the potential of doing research. Furthermore, students at the university level are trained in and taught to conduct research only to fulfill their graduation requirements rather than being encouraged to develop intellectual curiosity and explore the benefits of research, which is unlimited in terms of creativity, innovation, and sustainable development. One of the key informants I spoke to highlighted the significance of doing research: “No research, no development.”

To improve the overall doing research environment in Cambodia will not only require just funding, capacity building, and English language proficiency but also economic and institutional solutions to the many barriers to access.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Cambodia Can Lead on R2P in ASEAN

International Conference on the Responsibility to Protect at 10:
Progress, Challenges and Opportunities in Asia Pacific
26-27 February 2015, Sofitel, Phnom Penh

Cambodia Can Lead on R2P in ASEAN
This letter to the Editor of The Phnom Penh Post was published on 3 March 2015.
As the deputy director in charge of research and publication at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, I am pleased The Phnom Penh Post was able to send reporters to cover the international conference on “R2P [Responsibility to Protect] at 10: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities in Asia Pacific” on February 26 and 27 at the Hotel Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. 
The aim of this important conference was to promote fresh thinking and dialogue about the progress made thus far in translating discussion on genocide prevention to deeds, the challenges that have been confronted, especially in the Asian-Pacific region, and the opportunities that lie ahead to facilitate efforts to make the R2P principle a reality both in the region and globally. 
As such, the conference looked to combine dialogue about how far R2P has come with detailed consideration of how the principle’s three pillars can continue to be embedded into state practice and into the work of regional and sub-regional organisations, working in partnership with each other and the United Nations.
After reading your article With friends like these: PM Dresses down former Australian foreign minister at conference in the Post on February 27, I was disappointed that your reporter focused almost solely on the disagreement between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. This article offered a very limited view of the conference, glossing over the most import social and political implications of the event. The event sought to promote the international norm of “Responsibility to Protect”, in which state sovereignty is understood to include the responsibility of the state or government to provide protection and security for the people. R2P seeks a universal acceptance and implementation of protection of people from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing by making the responsibility international in cases where states cannot or will not fulfil their obligations. 
Besides a brief episode involving a personal rebuttal of criticisms made by Evans, Hun Sen stressed that Cambodia can take the leading role in the prevention of genocide in ASEAN (the theme of his speech). He stated that Cambodia had made great efforts to bring peace and moved towards the realisation to establish the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders and other perpetrators who are most responsible for committing genocide and crime against humanity. In this context, Cambodia can provide important lessons from this dark episode of its contemporary history in order to ensure peace and national reconciliation. Furthermore, it would be beneficial for the broader public if the record was set straight by including the many positive and constructive points that Prime Minister Hun Sen made during his speech to promote and advance R2P such as: 
“First, I believe that Cambodia has an important role to play in promoting responsibility to protect and prevent mass atrocities in Southeast Asia, given our own unique experience and what we have accomplished so far in addressing the past atrocities under the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Second, Cambodia will continue to encourage other members of ASEAN to consider signing and ratifying the Rome Treaty and let this be an important milestone for ASEAN as a community in the medium and longer term.
“Third, the royal government of Cambodia could initiate holding a regional dialogue on mass atrocities prevention in an effort to mainstream the Responsibility to Protect principle in ASEAN, based on the UN High Level Advisory Panel Report on Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia. On top of that, as the main coordinator for this conference, Cambodia can further facilitate dialogue to find common understandings consistent with principles and values of region.
“Fourth, Cambodia can serve as an important hub in the region for education and training in ASEAN on mass atrocities prevention as part of our collective efforts in building national and regional capacity in dealing with the root cause of internal conflicts and in managing risk factors that could lead to atrocious crimes. In this regard, I believe that our ASEAN dialogue partners such as Australia, the United States, the European Union, among others, could provide assistance in the region in mass atrocities prevention under an accord with the Responsibility to Protect principle”. The Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, the Documentation Center-Cambodia and the Genocide Museum, for example, can be utilised and have capacities to fulfil these tasks.
“Fifth, Cambodia can also be the main coordinator of an ASEAN-UN partnership in promoting the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia. One important project that can be pursued under this framework is developing training courses or programs for governments that would contribute to building national and regional mechanisms, such as early warning systems in order to manage risk factors that could lead to mass atrocities. Cambodia can also be the venue for regular dialogue between ASEAN and the UN to coordinate ideas and policies relevant to the Responsibility to Protect such as peace and conflict prevention, prevention of sexual violence against women and children, and inter-faith dialogue among communities.
“Sixth, Cambodia can also take the lead in proposing a network of Responsibility to Protect focal points in ASEAN. The royal government of Cambodia could seriously consider taking steps within the next few months to appoint a national focal point on the Responsibility to Protect in order to demonstrate our commitment to the region and the rest of the international community and the determination of the royal government of Cambodia in mass atrocities prevention.”
By addressing the positive aspects of prime minister’s keynote speech, readers would have been offered an informed and balanced view and understanding of the historical significance of the event for the national, regional and international communities. The position set out by the prime minister is worthy of earnest applause as it invokes the noble goal of protecting present and future generations from mass atrocities. The responsibility now falls to all members of the community and all stakeholders to assist Cambodia in making the prime minister’s vision a reality.
Pou Sovachana is the deputy director in charge of research and publication at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

What’s in store for Cambodia in 2015?

Last Sunset at Kep 2014

What’s in store for Cambodia in 2015?

As I watched the last sunset in Kep in 2014, I look forward to welcome the New Year and I hope that 2015 will bring peace, stability and prosperity (to ALL not only to the few riches and powerful ones) to Cambodia.

Despite the prevalence of peace, stability and remarkable economic development (almost 10 per cent per annum between 1998-2008, source World Bank), which has improved the living condition of the general population, critical challenges remain and the glass is still seen half empty, especially with regards to human rights violations, weak democratic governance, social injustice, and inequality between the rich and the poor. Their effects still persist for many Cambodians and more commitments are needed to scale up human security for the common people. As one participant in a public forum on land issues so incisively stated, “All this development is destroying our lives.”

The year 2014 was an intense and harsh year for Cambodia ranging from the protestors uprising to the government crackdown with at least five killed by police bullets on 3 January on Veng Sreng Street, from the government issued orders to shut down Freedom Park to end the political deadlock between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on 22 July with the signing of the controversial deal, the unprecedented 225,000 deported Cambodian migrant workers in June 2014 by the Thai Junta, the poor result of the national grade 12 passing grade after the new minister of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport banished of the widespread cheating and bribing (with only a quarter of the national exam of almost 90,000 takers passed the first round in August and close to eighteen percent managed to pass the second round in October retest), the sentencing of life in prison of the Khmer Rouge regime’s two most senior surviving leaders Nuon Chea  and Khieu Samphan by the tribunal, the highly contentious accord between the Australian and Cambodian government to relocate island of Nauru refugees in the Kingdom on September, the ongoing intimidation of the dissenters and the enduring prosecution of the eight labor unions presidents and land rights activists, and the recent HIV unusual outbreak in Battambang with more than 200 infected people from babies to monks.

Now what’s in store for Cambodia in 2015?  I believe the buck stops with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. As a political deadlock ended, both powerful leaders have agreed for a new plan for a better Cambodia, which includes amending the constitution and election law as well as to reforming the National Election Committee (NEC).  Like me and many other concerned citizens, we need to do more than ever before to build a better Cambodia and together we need to demand more from our leaders. We need to ask the politicians to do as they have promised and to look at the public policies that are affecting everyday life in Cambodia, such as endemic corruption, land grabbing and a rule of law that is not universally applied.  What we really want is the new development plan that is inclusive and leaves no one out.  After all, the ultimate objective of any meaningful development is to raise the standard of living of the people and end poverty and inequality. The country is facing many confronting socio-economic issues. After toiling on the amendment of the constitution and reforming the NEC (still working on the details), what the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party should address first determine a better Cambodia.  Those confronting issues are many: good governance, transparency, poverty, corruption, social inequality, education reforms, health care reforms, judicial reforms, migrant workers, ending land disputes, social injustice, culture of impunity, human rights abuse, nepotism, and a living wage for all government officials and workers.  

Both political parties play an indispensable role in building a just, free and democratic society by upholding the laws. Leaders must cultivate mutual respect and consideration, so as to create a feasible and reasonable balance of interest, instead of abusing unlimited power. They must have a sense of modesty and moderation instead of having an unquenchable lust for power.  In greed and power, humans lose their soul, freedom, and inner peace to serve others and become victims of their own greed and craving.  Leaders must use their political power in the service of the Cambodian people. They should develop and extend a spirit of mettā (selfless love and good will) and Karunā (compassion) with those who suffer – with special care for the children, the aged, the poor, the weak, the disabled, the vulnerable, the real victims, and the less fortunate. They should eliminate excessive bureaucracy centralization and work together for the good of the people and put national interest forefront instead of pointing fingers at each other and struggling for power.  Their policies and actions must be transparent because transparency would strengthen democracy and promote effectiveness in government.  They must practice what they preach by being accountable to the majority of the population and they must pay more attention to the needs and well being of the people.  If there is real progress and equitable prosperity, it will come from being (responsive to the people) not having (more power, wealth and status).

One Cambodian woman describes, “A good government is a government that does not abuse the people, that gives the people the land back, and that allows people to earn a living.”  The road ahead is rocky and always uphill, but the view from the top is impeccable.  May the New Year 2015 brings lasting peace, stability and real prosperity to ALL the people of Cambodia regardless of their status, their wealth and  their political choice.