Former Senator Opens US-Backed Human Rights NGO

Former Funcinpec senator Kem Sokha, who left the royalists in the wake of months of party in­fighting and widespread disillusionment, on Tues­day officially opened  an NGO he says will teach Cam­bodians their rights as na­tion­al elections draw near.

Christening it the Cambodian Cen­ter for Human Rights, Kem Sokha hailed the group, which he formed with US government mo­ney, as a new chance for all Cam­bodians to fight for their rights.

“CCHR will have an important task: To provide information on civil and political rights to the people and to empower the people to exercise their rights in order to make changes in Cambodia,” he said.

The group is long overdue, Kem Sokha added, speaking at an opening ceremony that drew hundreds of dignitaries, including Fun­­cinpec Secretary-Gen­eral Prince Norodom Sirivudh and Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay.

“Cambodians are tired of living with poverty, fear, impunity, corruption, violence and a lack of transparency,” Kem Sokha said.

Among the group’s aims is to build a radio station that will give all parties access to the mass me­dia, which human rights ob­ser­vers say is critical for free and fair elections in Cambodia.

The NGO’s budget comes from the In­ter­national Republican In­sti­tute, which obtained the mo­ney from the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional Development, officials said.

The Institute, which is supported by the US Republican Party, gave Kem Sokha $450,000 for one year to run the group, Cambodian Center for Human Rights adviser Andrew Thornly said.

During Tuesday’s ceremony, Kem Sokha carried letters from US senators John McCain and Mitch McConnell, both prominent Republicans.

McConnell has for years been a critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. In a recent statement, McConnell called for Wash­ington—as it debated whether to make war with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein—to work for a “regime change” in Cambodia.

In his letter to Kem Sokha, which was released to the media, McConnell was more oblique but no less critical.

“We already know that some peo­ple will be threatened by CCHR. Given the complete ab­sence of accountability in Cambo­dia’s public and private sector, these individuals should know that America is watching. We cannot—and will not—tolerate the violence, intimidation and chicanery that has become the hallmark of Cambodian politics,” the letter states.

Despite McConnell’s criticisms and the timing of the CCHR’s funding, the center will be fair to all parties, Thornly said.

“Well, it’s never a coincidence that funding becomes available in an election year. [But] I think it’s critical for the work we do—we’ve got to be nonpartisan. IRI’s in­volve­ment here is because IRI has been here for years. So it’s a self-managed program,” he said.

Critics who would go after the new center—before it has even begun its work—are missing the point of the center in the first place, Thornly said.

“We think the Cambodian people have the right to good information, and we think we’ve got the right programming for it,” he said.

 

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