Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Week 6 in Phnom Penh – Milestones, workshops and the haunting sadness of Toul Sleng

A major milestone was reached in the development of an Access to Information Act or FOI law in Cambodia – a week after Nepal passed its FOI law.

The first government-held workshop was held at the Phnom Penh Hotel on the 25th July 2007 with over 130 attendees from government, civil society and international donors and NGOs.

The workshop was convened to review the status and solicit comments on the draft policy of the Royal Government of Cambodia to pass legislation guaranteeing rights of access to Government information by the citizens of Cambodia. The participants were urged to provide written comments and feedback to the drafting team before the 20th August.

In her Opening Address by H.E. Men Sam An, Senior Minister, Minister of National Assembly Senate Relations and Inspection noted that the Ministry was committed to moving the right to information policy into law. The Minister said that transparent information creates trust, and contributes to democracy and good governance.

Joan Silvers, the USAID representative, praised the rapid progress and indicated a willingness on behalf of USAID to fund future work towards a draft law if requested.

The next day a workshop was held at the same hotel for 50 civil society representatives who were given a copy of the draft policy. The workshop focused on how civil society could make their campaign for an FOI law more effective both in the short term and long term if a law is finally implemented.

The key elements of the policy presented at the workshops included:

• Legal right of Cambodians to access government-held information

• Access to Information law part of a wider Royal Government of Cambodia Information Policy

• Ensuring a simple and effective process to seek and determine access to government-held information

• Balancing access with necessary protections

o Using a harm test or public interest test. Interests to be protected by using a harm test include:

National security, international relations, national economy
Development of government policy
Law enforcement and investigations
Health and safety

• Fees to be kept to a minimum

• The creation of an Information Commissioner

• Information to be provided within 20 working days

The draft policy still faces a long and difficult road before the passage of any future law. First the current draft needs to be approved by MoNASRI’s Minister and submitted to the Council of Ministers. The Draft Policy Paper will then be considered by the Council’s normal review mechanisms before submission to the Council of Ministers Session:

• The Draft Policy Paper will be reviewed by the Council of Jurists.
• If approved by the Council of Jurists the Draft Policy Paper will be reviewed by OCES.
• If approved the Draft Policy Paper will be reviewed by the Inter-ministerial Meeting.
• If approved the Policy Paper will be sent to the next Council of Ministers Session

The Draft Policy Paper suggests that an inter-ministerial drafting team be established, with support from donors. The paper also suggests an international conference be held to call upon the assistance of international experts and that a target of a draft law by June 2008 be set.

The Draft Policy Paper concludes that:

“The road from a closed information society, where secrecy dominates, to one that embraces openness is a long and difficult one. An Access to Information law will assist in the completion of a significant part of the journey but by itself is not sufficient to complete the journey. "
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Implementing Access to Information Laws: A Practical Guide for Operationalising Freedom of Information Laws 2006 argues that strong ‘bureaucratic cultures, inconsistent legislation, process and systems constraints and lack of understanding of the law by officials are all hurdles which will need to be overcome. The key issues that need to be addressed include:

  • Creating information leadership – Information Commissioner and Access to Information officials
  • Training
  • Developing resources to assist Access to Information officials
  • Improved records management
  • Effective delivery of information to those who most need it

Many of these initiatives will require long term efforts (training, records management improvement) and assistance from Development Partners. These efforts and assistance could be commenced even before the drafting of the law is commenced.”

My involvement in this process is now nearing a formal conclusion. I leave Cambodia on the 5th of August and hand in my final report on the 20th August. I will be working with the Drafting Team by email and phone till that date.

At the Civil Society Workshop on the 26th July I stressed the need for groups and individuals (within Cambodia and external bodies like the World Bank) to keep the momentum for Access to Information but to critically review the current draft policy and any future version of the policy or drafts of the proposed law. As experience elsewhere shows often good draft policies quickly get modified or converted into very weak and ineffectual legislation.

My visit to Toul Sleng or S-21

On Sunday morning I went by moto (an interesting experience) to visit Tuol Sleng S-21 (see www.tuolsleng.com or
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum) and I remained unfocused, and distracted, for rest of the day.

S-21 was the, or most famous, torture centre in Phnom Penh - mostly for those connected with the Khmer Rouge. At the end of his last interrogation session one person stated “I am not a human being I am an animal”. A thought stuck me just as I was reflecting on this morning’s visit about how “administrative” we can make death – the numbers, the pictures, the rules for interrogations at S-21, the documented confessions and the orderly processes for arrest, interrogation, torture and disposal.

Throughout the day and later as I sleep the images from S-21 keep reforming and touching most things I do. A couple of images keep coming back – one of a mother in a torture chair (straight back chair used for photographing and torture – head contraption holds head in place for photographs but also can deliver, by an angled wire, an electric shock) holding her young child. Death quick or drawn out - for mother and child? There because of a family connection, because someone who had previously sat in chair gave her name to ease their own torture?

The other is a picture of an Australian. Probably Ronald Keith Dean of Wollongong – an Australian yachtsman travelling to Thailand who confessed to being a CIA spy. A small number of westerners (mostly yachtsman) perished at S-21 and Thais and Vietnamese. Including 2 Australians.

Go looking for information and like most of the Cambodian victims there is often little about them. Found the following on the web - See http://cambodianewsonline.wordpress.com/2006/11/28/11-westerners-executed-in-tuol-sleng-prison/# Tom Farrell Says: April 23rd, 2007 at 8:53 pm

“Peter…I interviewed two Tuol Sleng survivors (Cambodian) and a relative of one of the American prisoners. Ronald Keith Dean (of Wollongong NSW) and David Lloyd Scott were picked up in early November 1978 while sailing their ketch ‘The Sanuk’ from Singapore to Sattaheap in Thailand. After torture, both wrote long, fictitious accounts of their ‘careers’ as CIA agents who had been bribed into using their yachting as a cover for photographing the Cambodian coastline. Then they were executed. I don’t know if family members of either man have come forward. The sister of English victim John Dewhirst now works as a lawyer in Cumbria and told a local newspaper she can’t even think of her brother’s fate without crying…28 years on. The kid brother New Zealand victim, Kerry Hamil is a champion rower and also said the circumstances of his brother’s death wrecked their family. The American relative I spoke to wept as he described seeing Tuol Sleng for the first time…he suffered PTSD afterwards. The Cambodians I spoke to remembers seeing tall bearded white men in nearby cells, but little else. Perhaps it’s better we don’t know how they died.”

Yale Genocide Project Record for Ronald Keith Dean
ID YO6373

Record for David Lloyd Scott
ID YO6374

Most of my time in the early part of the week is devoted to preparing for the 2 workshops on Wednesday and Thursday. Busy printing off and finishing Wednesday’s effort whilst needing to write and prepare Thursday’s presentation so it can be translated. A fairly stressful time as having to switch from one presentation to the other.

Thoughts of S-21 have been intruding on my dreams for these two days. A general feeling of melancholy.

Emails from various Law 609 students – late enrollers (including a transfer from Monash), sick and just returned students. A couple of enrolled students tell me that they are not doing the subject this year (timetable clashes etc). Numbers have risen to about 30 – far more than I expected or planned for. Idea for 15 minute weekly consultations will now take just over a day a week rather than 4 hours.

On the day of the big workshop I am picked up at 7am. A wedding party is being held down the road from the Goldiana. A lot of wedding parties take place on the street (seem to be held at anytime – local consultant went to one last night). Large stall structures – 1 to 2 lanes wide are constructed in the street in front of houses. Usually 2-3 structures. 1 for feeding guests and 1 for cooking the food. Another wedding on Saturday blocks the street a block away from the hotel).

On Thursday picked up to go to the civil society workshop. Pick up the AusAid youth intern on the way. We drive past one of the ministries. Curled up against the lock gate – no one in sight – is a young child, boy I think, who is fast asleep at 7.30am as traffic streams by. Most likely one of the street children and certainly 1 of the official 31% who are illiterate. Struck by sight and think how hopeless life – or more poignantly - how hard life is for such a child in Cambodia.

Same hotel as yesterday. Same feeling of large marbled entry and foray. Antiseptically clean, and airconditioned cold – a cocoon from the heat, smells and sights of the streets a small stone throw away.

A number of morning presentations. Certainly the civil society speakers are passionate, committed although still struggling with exactly what an access to information act would deliver.

My turn to present. Previous session had gone over time by 20 minutes leaving me with 40 minutes (including time allocated for questions), the staff can’t get the powerpoint to work – had been working first thing in morning. Asked to proceed without presentation – okay for first few minutes but then hit the part where I am totally dependent on slides. Go into my Dr Phil mode – and walk about stage with hand held mike taking questions from audience – have to try and guess whether question will be in khmer or English – if khmer I need to put on head phones for translation. If I guess wrong I miss the first part of questions. Eventually they get slides working.

Continue after lunch. Powerpoint once again hit troubles – so need to do the first 20 minutes free style again. Get a number of questions. A good session. The conference goes to well past 5 (numbers slowly drop off during afternoon but about 30 left at the end).

Friday 27 July 2007

Collected at 8am. Have meeting with Drafting Team. Decision to reduce proposed 2 day meeting of drafting team next week to just 1 day. We run through paper and attachments.

Spend day tidying up draft whilst local consultant makes translation changes. While I had been at the civil society workshop on Thursday he had worked through changes with one of Monasri’s under Secretaries of State. Send Pact my interim report (over due but have given several verbal briefings).

Friday night go to Denise’s (LA artist) 50th birthday at top of Khmer Surin. Jock (John from New Zealand goes as well) and about a dozen of the workers from her painting project – young Khmers in their late teens and early 20s. We have a lot of fun – great laughter and lots of jokes. Denise is shouting everyone but at end of night they will not take her card (ATM reader down). So I pay. Denise pays me back when we get to Goldiana – hotel staff amused as I hold her armful of flowers in the foyer. The cost for about 16 people (2 courses plus drinks) = $100 US with tip.

Day 41 Saturday 28th July 2007

A fairly relaxed day. Work on policy paper and then I read Law 609 article summaries. In contrast to most days more relaxed.

Day 42 Sunday 29th July 2007

Have breakfast with Imelda and Denise. Jock has gone to Bangkok to meet his wife who is joining him for the last part of his contract. Denise talks about working with some of the people who were very young children at the start of the Killing Fields. One person is now a monk – who needs to avoid watching TV or other sources of conflict. He travelled with others for 2 years to get to Thai border. At one stage they had to lay submerged in a river using water lily stems to breathe through for several hours. He and his companions ate pellets of river clay to fill their stomachs.

Denise and I then go to Russian Market in a Tuk Tuk. Negotiations on price for ride long and hard – drivers outside hotel organisied and take turns. Avoid undercutting each other. We establish - given Denise’s costs of getting to her work - a base travel rate and negotiate return fare (including a 1 hour wait) to $4 down from the $6 for a 1 way fare we were first presented with. Russian Market got its name during the days of Vietnamese Occupation.

Spend an hour wandering the market, endless haggling, stall after stall of similar stock (organised in groupings of products), as morning advances temperature gets hotter and hotter. I walk away from countless negotiations despite often getting price down to 50-60% of first quote. Have time and heap of stalls. Eventually start getting better bargains by asking for other items to be added. End up with a couple of tablecloths, scarves, a small Buddha and a couple of prints. Work out that prices at Hotel are actually fairly reasonable especially if you deduct tuk tuk fee and haggling time.

So second last week in Phnom Penh ends. Draft Policy Paper has been well received. 2 major public presentations and a Sunday morning of haggling. Later hear Radio Asia is critical of policy – no pleasing some people. They must have missed the first part of the policy and the Information Commissioner and went straight for the exemption and fees section.

1 comment:

Gustav said...

Excellent blog - how about a few more entries?