“We could not be prouder of you, and we stand with you.”
These were the words of United States President Barack Obama when he recognized Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, at the 10th Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Sopheap is also a member of the Global Voices community since 2009.
Sopheap was present when Obama praised her work in front of world leaders, civil society officials, media executives, and activists.
Obama mentioned Sopheap after he talked about the worrying human rights situation in Cambodia. He specifically mentioned the case of four activists who died after launching a campaign against government irregularities. One of these activists was prominent environmentalist Chut Wutty, who was shot dead in April 2012 while looking into the reported illegal logging operations in Koh Kong province. Obama honored Chut and other martyred activists, as well as those who are still actively promoting human rights in Cambodia. Obama proceeded to honor the brave decision of Sopheap to continue the campaign for justice in Cambodia:
Sopheap saw a fellow human rights advocate hauled off by the police, and she could have fled, too, but she says she’s never thought of leaving Cambodia even for minute. So she keeps organizing and marching and mobilizing youth to demand justice.
We conducted an e-mail interview with Sopheap, who is now back in Cambodia, about the recognition she received in the US and also about the case of Chut Wutty.
Global Voices (GV): What was your reaction to Obama's statement honoring Chut Wutty and recognizing your human rights advocacy?
Sopheap Chak (SC): It was inspiring to be recognized by a famous global leader. And even more inspiring was Obama’s statement about the important role of the civil society. He also emphasized that the most important title is not president or prime minister, but citizen. This should be the attitude of all government officials.
GV: Can you explain further the advocacy of your group which Obama recognized?
SC: The Cambodian Center for Human Rights is a non-aligned NGO that works to promote and protect democracy and human rights – primarily civil and political rights – in Cambodia. We work with ordinary people, grassroots activists, and community-based organizations at a time when the Cambodian government has failed to stop the deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. We assert that what hinders the emergence of true democracy is when authorities only recognize the human rights of the wealthy at the expense of ordinary Cambodians.
GV: How did Cambodian leaders and civil society react to Obama's statement?
SC: Civil society groups welcomed Obama's statement and they noted that it revived interest about the case of Chut Wutty, a martyred environmental activist. May the public never forget that the Cambodian government has failed to bring justice to him and his family. For instance, his death was not independently investigated.
What was doubly disheartening was the statement of a government official who continued to malign activists by calling Chut an illegal logger after Obama honored him. Yet the government could not present an evidence against Chut, and it could also not stop the rapid loss of Cambodia’s remaining forest cover. It could not even name a single illegal logger who had to be made accountable for destroying the environment.
GV: What are your future plans? Are you still pursuing Chut Wutty's case?
SC: We will continue our advocacy work especially the protection of human rights defenders and individuals who are exercising and asserting their fundamental freedoms. We will engage the government as it continues to criminalize the legitimate protest actions of activists and ordinary citizens. We will continue to advocate for real change in the country by raising the people’s awareness about their rights.
Regarding Chut Wutty’s case, we are still appealing for an independent investigation about his death. This is crucial to ensure that the culture of impunity is not tolerated in Cambodia.
GV: What is your message to the Global Voices community?
SC: It is truly inspiring to belong in a group as diverse as ours. Each member has this remarkable passion to contribute to the community and amplify voices neglected by mainstream media. We are motivated by the positive impact of our work. It’s amazing to see and contribute to the global growth of this movement.