Cambodia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


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Trend Arrow: 

Cambodia received an upward trend arrow due to the formation of a new coalition government that brought an end to a year-long political stalemate.


A new coalition government consisting of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and royalist Funcinpec in September 2004 brought an end to a year-long political stalemate. King Norodom Sihanouk, who turned 82 years old on October 31, abdicated and was succeeded by his son, Prince Sihamoni. On October 4, the Cambodian parliament unanimously approved plans for a special war-crimes tribunal to try surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia won independence from France in 1953. King Sihanouk ruled in the 1950s and 1960s until he was ousted by the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in the early 1970s. The Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. Under its dictatorship, at least 1.7 million of Cambodia's 7 million people died of disease, overwork, starvation, or execution. In 1979, Vietnam toppled the Khmer Rouge and installed a Communist regime. Civil strife continued in the 1980s, with the Hanoi-backed government fighting the allied armies of Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and other political contenders. Hun Sen, a one-time Khmer Rouge cadre, emerged as the regime's strongman in the early 1980s. The Paris peace accords of 1991 mandated democratic elections and a ceasefire, but the Khmer Rouge continued to wage a low-grade insurgency from the jungle until its disintegration in the late 1990s.

Cambodia had its first free parliamentary elections in 1993. The royalist party, known as Funcinpec after its French acronym, won the largest number of seats with a campaign that stirred nostalgia among voters for the stability that Cambodia had enjoyed under the monarchy in the 1960s. However, Hun Sen used his control over the security forces to coerce Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a son of King Sihanouk's, into sharing power with the CPP. Hun Sen also harassed and intimidated opposition groups and the press before finally ousting Ranariddh in a bloody coup in 1997.

During the campaign for the July 27, 2003, parliamentary elections, opposition candidates held dozens of rallies but faced restrictions on access to radio and television. Several political killings occurred, and local officials were also alleged to have intimidated voters and activists in the countryside. After the CPP failed to obtain the required two-thirds majority to form its own government, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP formed a coalition government with Funcinpec in November, which quickly broke down because of intense political rivalry.

In September 2004, the CCP and Funcinpec agreed upon the formation of a new coalition government. Foreign donors, who provide more than half of the government's annual budget and had become tired of the chronic lack of progress in legal, economic, and administrative reforms, put additional pressure on the parties to reach an agreement. The CPP took control of a large number of the important ministries in the new coalition government, and Hun Sen remained the prime minister. Sihanouk gave his blessings from Beijing, China, where he has stayed since January in protest of the breakup of the first coalition government he had helped to create in November 2003. With the new coalition government in place, the national assembly is expected to ratify Cambodia's accession to the World Trade Organization.

In past political negotiations, King Sihanouk had used the threat of abdication, which was also his condition for returning to Cambodia from Beijing. However, the 1993 constitution, which included no provision for abdication, states that the monarch rules for life and that a nine-member royal throne council must choose a successor within a week of the king's death. Although the monarchy is not hereditary, the king must be descended from certain bloodlines. A new law was quickly adopted requiring the royal throne council to elect a successor within seven days if the king "dies, retires, or abdicates." The council chose Prince Sihamoni, Sihanouk's son and favored choice as successor, as the new king on October 30. Sihamoni, who was educated in Czechoslovakia and North Korea after his family fled from the Khmer Rouge in 1975, had lived in France for two decades.

In January, union leader Chea Vichea was killed in a downtown thoroughfare. His funeral three days later attracted the largest crowd in the capital since antigovernment protests following the 1998 general election. Police put the number of mourners at 10,000; organizers and journalists estimated at least 30,000 people.

On October 4, parliament approved a plan agreement with the United Nations to establish a special tribunal in Phnom Penh to try surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. The special tribunal will be a mixed panel of Cambodian and international justices. Most judges will be Cambodian, but no majority can be taken without a vote by an international judge. As many as ten surviving Khmer Rouge leaders will be tried, including Ieng Sary, who had received a royal pardon for genocide but not for other crimes. Lack of resources may be the main obstacle to the functioning of this special court, which will require $57 million to run for the three years planned; all of the funding depends on voluntary contributions from UN member states. Under a Cambodian law adopted in 2001, no Khmer Rouge leader is exempt from prosecution.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Cambodia cannot change their government democratically. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislature consisting of a National Assembly and a Senate. The constitution was adopted on September 21, 1993, and promulgated by King Norodom Sihanouk, who served as the head of state, on September 24, 1993. The king, currently King Sihamoni, has no power under the constitution, but he is highly revered and exercises considerable influence as a symbol of unity for the nation.

The government, led by the prime minister and a council of ministers, must be approved via a two-thirds vote of confidence by the National Assembly, which has 123 seats. Members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The Senate has 61 members, 2 of whom are appointed by the king, 2 elected by the National Assembly, and 57 chosen by functional constituencies. Senate members serve five-year terms.

Policy debates are becoming more common in the National Assembly, but actual powers to scrutinize government actions are limited. Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP dominate national and local politics with their control of the security forces, officials at all levels of government, and the state-owned media.

Cambodia's 2003 parliamentary elections were marred by restrictions on opposition access to radio and television and allegations of intimidation of voters and activists in the countryside. Local officials, most of whom are CPP members, threatened opposition supporters with violence, expulsion from villages, and denial of rice rations and other goods. Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party were also reported to have violated election laws, though less seriously.

Corruption is a problem in Cambodia. A World Bank report released in August cited that "unofficial payments" are "frequent, mostly, or always required" for business transactions. About 600 of the 800 companies surveyed across Cambodia for this study reported that bribes represent on average about 5.2 percent of their total sales revenue. The International Monetary Fund estimated that economic growth would slow to 1.9 percent in 2005, down from the earlier estimates of 4.3 percent, because of corruption and bureaucratic red tape. Cambodia was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Radio and television journalists reportedly practice self-censorship, and broadcast news coverage favors the CPP. Authorities have denied repeated requests from opposition politician Sam Rainsy for a radio station license. Meanwhile, unknown assailants killed an editor with a pro-Funcinpec radio station in Phnom Penh in October 2003. Cambodia's print journalists are freer than their broadcast counterparts and routinely criticize governmental policies and senior officials, including the prime minister. However, authorities used the country's press law to suspend several newspapers for 30-day periods for criticizing the government or monarchy. Mobile phone service is expanding rapidly across the country, and there are more than 30,000 Internet users.

Religious freedom is generally respected in this country, where over 90 percent of the population are Theravada Buddhists. However, discrimination against the ethnic Cham Muslims is widespread. Many Chams complain of harassment by officials and ethnic Khmers. The Khmer Rouge almost annihilated this minority group, and the Chams have come under new suspicion from the Khmer majority in the wake of Islamic terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia, the United States, and elsewhere. Wider Khmer suspicion of the Chams is further fuelled by rumors that the Chams are plotting to secede and reestablish the Cham kingdom of Champa.

Extreme poverty and the lack of government assistance have compelled many within the Cham community to seek help from overseas donors, many of which are advocates of orthodox forms of Islam. Much of the money donated to the Chams is coordinated through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The most prominent of these groups are the Cambodian Islamic Development Foundation and the Cambodian Islamic Youth Association, which receive funds from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Iran. Education - choosing between the new orthodox Islamic schools that focus on the Koran and Arabic language instruction and the government-run schools - has turned into a flashpoint in debates within the Cham community and with Cambodian society at large.

Workers, students, political activists, and others held numerous protests throughout 2004 with little interference, although police or pro-government thugs were reported to have broken up some demonstrations. Cambodia's 40-odd nongovernmental human rights groups investigate and publicize abuses and carry out training and other activities.

The few independent trade unions are active, but they are small, have limited resources and experience, and generally have little clout in negotiating with management. Factory workers frequently stage strikes in Phnom Penh to protest low wages, forced overtime, and poor and dangerous working conditions. However, union leaders are reported to face dismissal and other harassment at some factories, and hired thugs at times intimidate or physically attack union members and other workers. With some 80 percent of Cambodians relying on subsistence farming, union membership is estimated at less than 1 percent of the workforce. In April 2004, 300 workers of the Raffles Hotel La Royal in the capital and the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap were fired for demanding payment to them of the 10 percent service charge collected from customers. Cambodian courts declared the strike illegal and ordered the workers to return to work. The Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation called for a boycott of these hotels, and international hotel workers unions backed this call.

Cambodia's judiciary is not independent and is marred by inefficiency and corruption. These problems reflect, in part, the court system's limited resources, severe shortage of lawyers, and poorly trained and underpaid judges. Security forces and local officials at times illegally detain suspects, while the accused frequently spend lengthy periods in detention before their trials. Police also routinely conduct searches without warrants.

Investigators often torture criminal suspects to extract confessions, and defendants frequently lack lawyers and must bribe judges to gain favorable verdicts. Delays or corruption allows many suspects to escape prosecution, leading to impunity for some government officials and members of their families who commit crimes. Despite recent reforms, jails remain dangerously overcrowded and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care, human rights groups say. In a further sign that the rule of law is fragile in Cambodia, police, soldiers, and government officials are widely believed to often tolerate, or even take part in, gunrunning, drug trafficking, prostitution rings, and money laundering.

Six years of negotiations between Cambodia and the United Nations finally resulted in an agreement in 2003 to create an internationally backed tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders. Many observers complained that the tribunal will have a majority of Cambodian judges, who are widely believed to lack independence.

With the 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. Observers say that the local committees set up to settle land disputes render inconsistent decisions, operate with limited transparency, and are undermined by conflicts of interest among committee members.

The estimated 200,000 to 500,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia face widespread discrimination. Meanwhile, several hundred Montagnards, a predominantly Christian, mountain-dwelling ethnic group in Vietnam, who fled to Cambodia to escape repression, were forcibly returned to Vietnam in 2001 and 2002.

Women enjoy the same access to education as men, but suffer economic and social discrimination, and few are active in politics or hold senior government posts. Rape and domestic violence are common. Trafficking of women and girls within and outside Cambodia for prostitution continues despite some recent prosecutions of traffickers and sporadic crackdowns on Phnom Penh brothel owners.