Freedom in the World
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The government of Cambodia continued its policy in 2005 of silencing its critics, including arresting or threatening to arrest opposition members of parliament. In February, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who faced criminal defamation charges, fled overseas after parliament stripped him of immunity from prosecution. Meanwhile, a lack of funds prevented the launch of a special tribunal to try surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia won independence from France in 1953. King Norodom Sihanouk ruled 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, and at least 25 percent 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. Fighting continued in the 1980s between the Hanoi-backed government and the allied armies of Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and other political contenders. The 1991 Paris peace accords brought an end to warfare, although the Khmer Rouge continued to wage a low-grade insurgency until its disintegration in the late 1990s.
Although the royalist party, known as Funcinpec after its French acronym, won the largest number of seats in the first free parliamentary elections in 1993, Hun Sen, head of the Hanoi-backed regime, used his control over the security forces to coerce Funcinpec to share power with the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Hun Sen later ousted the leader of Funcinpec in a bloody coup in 1997.
Cambodia's 2003 parliamentary elections were marred by government restrictions on opposition access to the media and reports of widespread vote buying, violence, and voter intimidation by the CPP. Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) were also reported to have violated election laws, though much less seriously. The CPP failed to obtain the required two-thirds majority to form its own government. Another coalition government with Funcinpec that was negotiated in November 2003 quickly broke down. A new CCP-Funcinpec coalition that was agreed upon in September 2004 ended the political stalemate.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy's attack on government corruption and abuses brought him into sharp confrontation with the authorities. In February, the National Assembly stripped Rainsy and fellow SRP legislators Chea Poch and Cheam Channy of their parliamentary immunity. Channy, who was arrested on February 3, was convicted by a military tribunal in August on charges of organized crime and fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison. Rainsy, who was charged with defaming Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen, and Poch fled the country rather than face possible arrest. In August, Poch returned to Cambodia to face defamation charges. Meanwhile, SRP legislative members boycotted parliament, denying the government the quorum necessary to conduct business. As of November 30, Rainsy remained in self-imposed exile.
In October 2004, parliament approved a plan with the United Nations to establish a special tribunal in Phnom Penh to bring surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice. A mixed panel of Cambodian and international justices will try as many as 10 surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, including Ieng Sary, who had received a royal pardon for genocide but not for other crimes. A lack of funds hindered the launch of the tribunal-which will require $57 million to run for three years-in April 2005. While UN members pledged $38 million, Cambodia pledged $13 million, but could only provide $1.5 million. (Japan gave $21.6 million of the $37 million required to set up the tribunal. The United States announced that it would not make a donation because it has already provided $7 million to document and research the crimes.) Under a 2001 Cambodian law, no Khmer Rouge leader is exempt from prosecution.
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 on September 24, 1993, by King Norodom Sihanouk, who served as the head of state. The king, who has no power under the constitution, is highly revered and exercises considerable influence as a symbol of unity for the nation. Citing ill heath, King Sihanouk abdicated in 2004. A nine-member royal throne council chose Prince Sihamoni, Sihanouk's son and favored choice as successor, to succeed his father on October 30, 2003; Sihamoni had never been involved in politics and had lived abroad for much of his life.
The government, consisting of the prime minister and a council of ministers, must be approved by 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.
Corruption is a very serious 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 noted that economic growth has been slowed significantly by corruption and bureaucratic red tape: 50 percent of the country's budget comes from international aid, a third of the population live on less than a dollar a day, and the vast majority have no access to electricity or clean potable water. Cambodia was ranked 130 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government exercises tight control of the media. While Cambodia's print journalists are comparatively freer than their broadcast counterparts and routinely criticize governmental policies and senior officials, the print media reach 10 percent of the population. In October, the government arrested Mam Sonando, owner and manager of Radio Beehive, the only independent radio station in Cambodia, on charges of criminal defamation. The charges stemmed from an interview Sonando had conducted about planned territorial concessions by Hun Sen's government to Vietnam for securing a border demarcation treaty. As of the end of November, Mam, who had been denied bail, remained in jail. Internet access is slowly increasing, but the high cost and lack of connectivity largely limits its use to the capital and a few other major cities.
The majority of the population are Theravada Buddhists who can generally practice their faith freely. However, discrimination against the ethnic Cham Muslims is widespread. The government generally respects academic freedom.
Many civil society groups operate in Cambodia and work on a broad spectrum of issues; many are funded by donors overseas. Nongovernmental human rights groups investigate and publicize abuses and carry out training and other activities. Public gatherings, protests, and marches do occur and are rarely violent. However, progovernment thugs, if not uniformed police, are still occasionally used by the government to intimidate participants.
There are a few independent unions. Factory workers frequently stage strikes in Phnom Penh to protest low wages, forced overtime, and poor and dangerous working conditions. However, with limited resources and experience, unions have limited influence in negotiations with management. Union leaders are reported to face various forms of harassment and physical threats. In January 2004, Chea Vichea, head of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, was killed on a downtown thoroughfare. His funeral brought out the largest crowd in the capital since antigovernment protests following the 1998 general election; while police put the number of mourners at 10,000, organizers and journalists estimated at least 30,000 people. Although two men were sentenced in August 2005 to twenty years in prison for the union leader's murder, their conviction was based on a confession obtained after police tortured one of the defendants.
Cambodia's judiciary is not independent and is marred by inefficiency and corruption. There is a severe shortage of lawyers, and judges are poorly trained and underpaid. Abuse by law enforcement officers, including illegal detentions and the torture of suspects, is common. Delays in the judicial process and corruption allow many suspects to escape prosecution, leading to impunity for some government officials and members of their families who commit crimes. Jails are dangerously overcrowded and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care. Police, soldiers, and government officials are widely believed to tolerate, or be involved in, gunrunning, drug trafficking, prostitution rings, and money laundering.
Discrimination against the ethnic Cham Muslims is widespread. 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. Rumors that the Chams are plotting to secede and reestablish the Cham kingdom of Champa have further aggravated relations with the Khmer majority. Extreme poverty and the lack of government assistance have compelled many within the Cham community to seek help from overseas donors, many of whom are advocates of orthodox forms of Islam. In addition, persons of Vietnamese heritage in Cambodia face various forms of discrimination and harassment by the government and society.
The constitution guarantees and the government generally respects the right to freedom of travel and movement. However, there have been reports of the government restricting travel for opposition politicians, particularly during political campaigns before elections.
With the courts largely unable to enforce property rights and the land registration system in shambles, the wealthy and powerful elite have forced tens of thousands off their land for their own profit. In several instances, residents were evicted by force and their homes demolished by government order without due process to determine ownership or compensation. In July, the police barred 500 indigenous Phnong people from protesting against a Chinese-owned tree-planting company for allegedly taking over their ancestral land and for spraying herbicides in the area. Some indigenous peoples are beginning to organize to defend their rights.
Women suffer widespread economic and social discrimination. Rape and domestic violence are common, and women and girls are trafficked inside and outside of Cambodia for prostitution. In December 2004, an armed gang raided a safe house run by a women's rights group for sex workers and abducted 80 women. The sex trade has fueled the spread of HIV/AIDS; an estimated 170,000 Cambodians are now infected with the virus.