Ou Virak

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Ou Virak

"Through his innovative approaches to the media, his ability to creatively engage the countryside and his fearlessness, Ou Virak has brought international attention to the repression of human rights in Cambodia.

"As the highest staff member and spokesperson at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Ou Virak has never failed to defend the principles of human rights. From facilitating public forums and addressing crowds to clearly explaining to illiterate farmers their fundamental rights and freedom, Ou Virak is guided by his strong belief that democracy begins with freedom of speech and assembly and that these rights are vital to the democratic development of Cambodia.

"Born during the first year of the Khmer Rouge regime, Virak never knew his father, who was an officer of the Lon Nol regime murdered by the Khmer Rouge. In 1984, along with his mother and four elder brothers, Virak left the country and lived in the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand for three years. In 1988 the family was allowed to immigrate to the United States.

"Throughout his education and college career, Virak was an active member of the Cambodian Student Association. In 1993 he attended a meeting with the future Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy and from that moment on actively participated in events and forums focusing on the human rights situation in Cambodia. In 1994 Virak began studying Economics at California State University of Fresno, graduating in 2000 with a Bachelors degree, and later studied at San Jose State University, completing his Masters degree program in 2003.

"Although Virak had adapted to American society well, he remained connected to his Cambodian homeland and culture. More and more he found himself interested in contributing to the democratic development of Cambodia which he visited in 1998 and 2003. In February of 2004, Virak returned to Cambodia permanently, taking a position as a teacher of Economics at the Pannasastr University in Pnom Penh.

"In May of 2005, Virak joined CCHR as a junior staff member only to find himself the organization’s new public face in the absence of two senior officers who had been arrested, imprisoned and charged with criminal defamation. It now fell to Virak to keep up the Center’s work and ensure that the organization did not flounder.

"Amid rumors of his own possible arrest, Virak not only refused to flee but took on a more visible and public role at CCHR. Where many organizations would have been paralyzed by the loss of their leaders, CCHR rose to the challenge and grew, expanding its reach from Pnom Penh to the Cambodian countryside and around the world. Virak worked tirelessly to draw attention and concern from the diplomatic community, Asian neighbors, the international press corps and the international human rights community. CCHR’s work created the highest level of pressure and scrutiny of the Cambodian government and led to the release of CCHR’s two senior officers.

"In response to the imprisonment of his superiors, Ou Virak founded the Alliance for Freedom of Expression (AFEC), a network of various non-governmental Cambodian institutions and independent individuals founded to advocate for the right to freedom of expression. In 2005, AFEC distributed 100,000 yellow ribbons as a symbol of the need to support for Freedom of Expression throughout Cambodia. The launch of this campaign echoed throughout the world and large numbers of Cambodians wore yellow ribbons to public events sending a clear message to the government that Cambodian civil society did not accept repression against its leading activists. When the government intensified this repression by arresting other activists Mr. Virak became a key figure of non-violent resistance by publishing public statements and organizing the presentation of a petition for the release of those incarcerated.

"Since the successful release of all imprisoned Cambodian human rights defenders, AFEC has continued to demand the implementation of fundamental civil and political rights in Cambodia and has successfully affected a change in law that defamation would be decriminalized.

"Ou Virak has shown a high level of bravery in his role as spokesperson for the CCHR. He continues to speak out on issues such as freedom of speech, land-rights and political intimidation, issues which typically induce silence and self-censorship and jail-time within Cambodia. In a country where criticism of the government makes one an enemy of the state and a target for defamation crimes, Ou Virak is effective in speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves and is fearless, passionate and uncompromising while doing so. In a country like Cambodia, Ou Virak stands out as a glimmer of hope for the future." [1]

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  1. Iryna Toustsik, , accessed January 21, 2008.