Dozens of threats made against Licadho during the past several weeks in the face of anti-Vietnamese sentiments have compelled the local human rights group to suspend a program created specifically to aid ethnic minorities.
Critics appear most upset by Licadho’s sheltering of ethnic Vietnamese rescued from a garment factory in late February, though that was only one of several recent public rows between Cambodians and Vietnamese, who clash periodically over ethnic and nationalistic differences.
The decision only affects a small portion of Licadho’s work, and the group will continue to receive and investigate complaints registered with them by Vietnamese, according to Licadho founder Kek Galabru.
But observers say the cumulative attacks could create a chilling effect on the human rights group. And it could impact other rights groups operating in Cambodia, where rights workers are disadvantaged at the outset by the sheer volume of abuses and often unsympathetic authorities.
“There’s circumstantial evidence to suggest [a pattern of incidents],” Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said—suggesting that Licadho’s recent public raking over the coals could be an attempt by some to scare rights workers in Cambodia.
“It’s like a big slap across the face. We can’t work,” Kek Galabru said. “This time we have to fight two fronts. Mostly we are just dealing with the government, but it’s worse when you also have to fight Cambodian public opinion.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s human rights adviser Om Yentieng said Tuesday he was unaware of Licadho’s problems and stressed that if the group had a legitimate complaint it should approach the government for help. But he also suggested the group may be experiencing an internal rift that resulted in the minority office’s closure.
“Licadho should make sure what the real problem is,” Om Yentieng said.
Kek Galabru was sharply criticized in the Khmer-language press for about a week following the garment factory rescue—particularly in newspapers aligned or perceived to be aligned with the government.
Those opposed to Licadho’s handling of that case, including commune officials in the area of Phnom Penh where most of the workers were housed after their discovery, have accused Licadho staff of helping the Vietnamese “escape.”
“[Licadho staff] always created disorder with the Vietnamese,” said Phsar Thmei Commune Chief Sy Tuon.
But human rights workers have pointed out that no arrest warrants had ever been issued for the Vietnamese and that they were technically free to leave their safe house—a fact that had been acknowledged by Don Penh District Chief Suon Rindy.
Licadho also drew fire for involvement to lesser degree with approximately 120 Vietnamese families who recently clashed with monks at a Phnom Penh pagoda where they have been squatting since the 1980s.
And Kek Galabru said Licadho staff members were most recently targeted because they did not get involved in the case of ethnic Vietnamese fishermen accused of killing three Cambodian fisheries officials. This, Kek Galabru said, was taken by opponents to indicate Licadho’s turning a blind eye to Vietnamese criminals.
Though she acknowledged this drubbing had taken its toll on the morale of Licadho staff, Kek Galabru said it was threats of violence against three members of the group’s Minority Office that earlier this month prompted the temporary suspension of their work—educating ethnic Vietnamese on their rights.
One anonymous caller said that Cambodians were going to demonstrate against the group’s support of the Vietnamese and that Licadho’s offices may be destroyed, Kek Galabru said.
“We’re afraid of the mob standing on the corner of the street, of calls from people saying they are going to do justice themselves,” Kek Galabru said Monday. “I’m afraid for my Vietnamese staff.”
The minority office, which was opened in early February, may re-open, though some Licadho staffers indicated they would like to see the program canceled entirely, citing a feeling of general unease in the organization.