Long-Absent Human Rights NGO Director Resigns

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Dozens of villagers involved in a land dispute with Chinese company Union Development Group protest outside the Koh Kong provincial hall on February 3, 2020. (Adhoc)
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The director of human rights group Adhoc has resigned after five years living abroad following the arrests of his staff members, a decision seen as both an “opportunity” for new leadership in civil society and a new chapter for the NGO.

Thun Saray fled to Canada in 2016 after five staff members were arrested in an anti-corruption case involving CNRP co-founder Kem Sokha and alleged mistress Khom Chandaraty. The “Adhoc 5” spent more than a year in jail before being released on bail.

One of the five, Ny Sokha, would be taking over the leadership of the NGO, Sokha said in a letter on the decision. Saray was ill and receiving medical treatment in Canada, he said.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights director Chak Sopheap said Saray had many achievements in his time as head of Adhoc, and the passing of the torch was a model for other civil society groups to follow.

“This change of leadership is an opportunity for a new character who can come in to show their work and can get new energy through learning from the old energy so that we can continue all this work,” Sopheap said. 

“I understand that it is an opportunity that our civil society organizations should also study and look into regarding the leadership mandate, because we know that normally, as a leader, we should try to cultivate a new generation.”

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the resignation made sense considering Saray was not in the country.

“I understand that Thun Saray is overseas. What is the use of us to take that position along? Let the insider continue to work easily. This is a gesture to be respected,” Siphan said, adding that Saray had been willing to work together with the government.

“I see him as a good facilitator who is different from others who in their roles at NGOs do not speak to the government. He is a partner. I respect him,” he said.

The letter by Saray’s successor Sokha noted that Adhoc had won awards during Saray’s tenure.

Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, said Saray had worked for 30 years to promote democracy and human rights, and was a “hero.”

“His 30-year mission is suitable enough for him to now take a rest both physically and mentally because he is already old,” Pov said.

Licadho deputy director Am Sam Ath said it was sad to see Saray go. “We still hope that Adhoc will remain strong with the successor to president Thun Saray,” Sam Ath said.

According to a bio on Adhoc’s website, Saray was detained in the late 1980s for advocating for human rights and democracy. Adhoc was founded in December 1991, following the signing of that year’s Paris Peace Agreements.

Additional reporting by Ouch Sony

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