Cambodia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

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The ruling party's landslide victory in Cambodia's February 2002 local polls strengthened autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen's hand in advance of national elections due in 2003. The vote followed a violent campaign that included several election-related killings, threats, vandalism, and other acts of intimidation against the opposition. The elections continued the political dominance of Hun Sen, 50, and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) by keeping control of local security forces and resources in the hands of trusted officials.

After winning independence from France in 1953, Cambodia was ruled in succession by King Norodom Sihanouk, the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in the early 1970s, and the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Under the Maoist Khmer Rouge, at least 1.7 million of Cambodia's 7 million people died by execution, disease, overwork, or starvation. Vietnam invaded in December 1978 and installed a Communist government in January 1979 under the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP).

During the 1980s, the KPRP government fought the allied armies of Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and a former premier, Son Sann. An internationally brokered peace deal signed in 1991 formally ended the war and put the impoverished Southeast Asian country on the path to multiparty elections, although the Khmer Rouge continued to wage a low-grade insurgency from the jungle.

In Cambodia's first free parliamentary elections, in 1993, the royalist United Front for an Independent, Neutral, and Free Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a Sihanouk son, defeated the CPP, the successor to the KPRP. Following the vote, CPP leader Hun Sen, a onetime Khmer Rouge cadre, used his control over the army to force FUNCINPEC to include the CPP in a coalition government.

Backed by Cambodia's security forces, Hun Sen harassed and intimidated FUNCINPEC members, opposition groups, and the press in the mid-1990s before ousting Ranariddh in a bloody coup in 1997. The Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, largely disintegrated within a year of the coup following the death of its leader, Pol Pot, and the defections of top commanders.

Since the coup, Hun Sen has faced few real threats to his power, while the end of the Khmer Rouge insurgency has brought peace to Cambodia for the first time since the 1960s. The CPP, which continues to have close ties to the military, won a flawed election in 1998 that appeared to be held primarily to convince donors to resume aid they had suspended after the coup. The CPP won 64 seats; FUNCINPEC, 43; and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), led by Cambodia's leading dissident, 15. Turnout was officially more than 90 percent. Hun Sen brought FUNCINPEC into a coalition government as a junior partner, with Prince Ranariddh serving as president of the National Assembly.

International donors resumed aid to Cambodia in 1999, and their grants and soft loans now make up more than half of the government's annual budget. Many donors viewed the February 3, 2002, local elections--the country's first local vote since the 1960s--as a test of the government's commitment to political reform. Between January 2001 and January 2002, however, 15 opposition party members and candidates were killed, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Using a slightly different time frame, the United Nations reported that 12 opposition figures were killed under suspicious circumstances in 2001. The CPP won around 1,600 of Cambodia's 1,621 communes, or local bodies.

Meanwhile, the UN in February pulled out of negotiations over a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders accused of crimes against humanity and other grave human rights abuses. The world body said that a Cambodian law on the tribunal did not include sufficient safeguards to ensure independent and impartial trials.

In another development, courts in 2001 and 2002 convicted more than 90 men for their roles in a November 2000 attack on government buildings in Phnom Penh that killed at least eight people. Amnesty International and other human rights groups criticized the investigation and trial procedures leading to the convictions. A California-based antigovernment group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Cambodia's most recent parliamentary elections, in 1998, were neither free nor fair because of violence, restrictions on press coverage and campaign opportunities, and an eleventh- hour manipulation of the rules for allocating parliamentary seats among parties. At least 21 politically motivated killings, mainly of FUNCINPEC supporters, took place between late May and the June 26, 1998, election, UN observers reported. In any case, although the National Assembly is becoming a forum for debate, it "does not provide a significant check to executive power," according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002.

Local officials reportedly harass FUNCINPEC and SRP members through threats of death or loss of citizenship papers and by withholding routine services, the U.S. State Department report said. Courts recently have convicted some suspects in political killings, but judges, the government, and police investigators tend to downplay or ignore possible political motives in these cases.

Cambodia's judiciary "is not independent" because of interference from Hun Sen's administration and the National Assembly, according to the U.S. State Department report, which also stated that the court system suffers from chronic corruption, limited resources, poorly trained and underpaid judges, and a severe shortage of lawyers. The report added that investigators sometimes beat or threaten suspects to extract confessions from them, defendants often lack adequate legal counsel and must bribe judges for favorable verdicts, and at the same time, corruption or delays allow many suspects to escape prosecution.

Human rights groups say that police, soldiers, and local officials at times illegally detain suspects or hold them well beyond the legal limits without bringing any charges. Suspects who are charged, meanwhile, generally spend long periods in detention before their trials. Despite recent reforms, Cambodian prisons remain dangerously overcrowded, and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care, the U.S. State Department report said.

Dozens of alleged criminals have been killed by vengeance-seeking mobs in recent years. Observers say that these vigilante killings reflect popular frustration with the poor state of Cambodian law enforcement.

Cambodia's private press routinely criticizes governmental policies and senior officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen. Officials, however, have recently used a strict 1995 press law to suspend several newspapers for 30-day periods for criticizing the government or monarchy. The law provides journalists with some rights, but also permits the Information Ministry to suspend newspapers, subjects journalists to criminal statutes, and broadly prohibits publishing articles that affect national security or political stability.

Television and radio programming are consistently biased towards the ruling CPP, according to Human Rights Watch. Unlike their print counterparts, broadcast journalists reportedly practice self-censorship, the U.S. State Department report said. The Information Ministry has denied repeated requests from opposition leader Sam Rainsy for a license to operate a radio station.

Women enjoy equal access with men to education, but they play relatively limited roles in government, politics, and private sector management. They also hold an outsized share of the low-paying agricultural, industrial, and service sector jobs.

Nongovernmental groups say that rape and domestic violence are common. They also allege that trafficking of women and girls within the country continues to be widespread despite some recent prosecutions of traffickers and sporadic crackdowns on Phnom Penh brothel owners. Many of Cambodia's estimated 80,000 to 100,000 prostitutes, one-third of whom are under the age of 18, are trafficking victims. Prostitutes frequently are abused and held in conditions of bonded servitude by brothel owners, the U.S. State Department report said.

Buddhism is Cambodia's state religion, and more than 95 percent of the population is Buddhist. Cham Muslims and other religious minorities can worship freely. The estimated 200,000 to 500,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia face harassment and discrimination both by officials and within mainstream society, according to the U.S. State Department report.

Workers, teachers, students, and others held numerous protests throughout the year with little interference, although police or government-organized groups broke up some demonstrations. Cambodia's 40-odd nongovernmental human rights groups face some intimidation by local officials but, for the most part, freely investigate abuses and carry out training programs and other activities.

Cambodia's few independent trade unions are active, but they are small, have limited resources, and generally have little clout in negotiating with management. Workers frequently staged strikes and held demonstrations in Phnom Penh to protest against low wages, forced overtime, poor and dangerous working conditions, and dismissal of pro-union staff. In a country where some 80 percent of workers are subsistence farmers, union membership is estimated at less than one percent of the workforce.

With Cambodian courts largely unable to enforce property rights, and the land registration system a shambles, military and civilian officials have in recent years forcibly evicted several thousand families from their land, according to Cambodian human rights groups such as LICADHO. Observers say that the dispute resolution procedures used by local committees set up to settle land disputes are plagued by inconsistency, a lack of transparency, and conflicts of interest among committee members.

Government officials, soldiers, and police often tolerate, and reportedly at times take part in, gunrunning, drug trafficking, and money laundering schemes as well as prostitution rings run by mainland Chinese. Businessmen, aid workers, and diplomats say that corruption is widespread in government offices and private banks, with many bribes going to fund CPP and FUNCINPEC outreach programs and election campaigns, the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review reported in March. Cambodia's long-term economic growth prospects, meanwhile, are clouded by poor infrastructure and a mounting foreign debt nearly equaling the size of the economy.