Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister Hun Sen intensified suppression of all criticism. A new law that strips legislators of immunity and the law’s consequent criminal defamation suits are now used to silence opponents, democracy activists, and journalists. Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader, was given a royal pardon, and he returned to Cambodia after recanting his allegation against Hun Sen. A special tribunal to try top Khmer Rouge leaders is expected to begin in early 2007.
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. An estimated 250,000 to two million of Cambodia’s population of seven million died of disease, overwork, starvation, or execution under the Khmer Rouge before Vietnam toppled the regime and installed a Communist one in 1979. 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, but the Khmer Rouge waged a low-grade insurgency until its disintegration in the late 1990s.
Politics has been dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) through their use of the military, courts, and parliamentary tactics to remove and outmaneuver any opposition. In 1997, Hun Sen used his control of the security forces to coerce the royalist party, known as Funcinpec after its French acronym, to share power even though Funcinpec won the largest number of seats in the first parliamentary election in 1993. Hun Sen later ousted the leader of Funcinpec in a bloody coup in 1997.
In the 2003 parliamentary elections—marred by government restrictions on opposition access to the media and reports of widespread vote buying, violence, and voter intimidation by the CCP—the CPP nevertheless failed to obtain the two-thirds majority required to form a government. A coalition government with Funcinpec was negotiated but quickly broke down. A new CCP-Funcinpec coalition was formed in September 2004, that allowed for the resumption of government and the receipt of foreign assistance, which accounts for half of the government’s budget.
With Funcinpec in the coalition, Hun Sen and the CCP turned to quieting opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his party. To stop Rainsy’s attacks on government corruption and abuses, the National Assembly stripped him and fellow Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) legislators Chea Poch and Cheam Channy of their parliamentary immunity in February 2005, through adding restrictions on immunity for lawmakers to a bill that grants pensions and perks to members of Parliament. Motivated by personal gain, CCP and Funcinpec Assembly members passed the law. Channy was quickly arrested and convicted by a military tribunal on charges of organized crime and fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison. Rainsy was charged with defaming Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen; he was found guilty in absentia after Rainsy and Poch fled Cambodia to escape arrest. Leading human rights activists were also imprisoned for defaming Hun Sen.
Pressure from international donors persuaded Hun Sen to release the jailed human rights activists less than a year after they were sentenced. Hun Sen also negotiated with Rainsy for a settlement: Rainsy would receive a royal pardon in exchange for promising to recant his allegations and issue a public apology to Hun Sen. Rainsy agreed to the terms and fulfilled them, returning to Cambodia in February 2006, after a year overseas in self-exile. Channy also received a royal pardon and was released from prison. The new alliance with Rainsy and the constitutional amendment, proposed by the SRP and adopted by the National Assembly in March, strengthened Hun Sen and the CCP’s grip on power. Hun Sen then turned to attack Ranaridd, who had accused the government of inefficiency and corruption, and Funcinpec, his coalition partner. The prime minister accused several members of Funcinpec of nepotism and extramarital affairs and used the CCP-dominated National Assembly to pass an anti-adultery law in September that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison for those convicted. Possibly to avoid a scandal that could have ruined his political future, Ranariddh, who has attended many public functions accompanied by a female dancer rather than his wife and been accused of financial mismanagement in major development projects, suddenly left Cambodia in March and did not return until August. The persistent volatility of Cambodian politics makes it difficult to predict the political alignments likely to emerge in the next general election, in November 2008.
Weak governance, widespread poverty, and corruption are a few of the major factors contributing to the World Bank’s designation of Cambodia as a fragile state. To pressure the government to impose real reform, the World Bank suspended $64 million in loan transfers to Cambodia in May 2006 when serious abuses and irregularities in the management of World Bank funds for seven projects surfaced. The World Bank also asked Cambodia to repay $7 million in aid money. A UN envoy warned of the government’s increasing totalitarian tendencies and the country’s deteriorating human rights conditions, while the UN Commissioner for Human Rights urged judicial reform. Meanwhile, international organizations refused to monitor the country’s first Senate elections in June 2006 because the process was deemed undemocratic; only members of the Parliament (the majority of whom are CCP members) and 11,000 commune councilors (nearly 8,000 of which are CCP members elected in the February 2002 commune election marked by government intimidation and extensive vote buying) were eligible to vote in this Senate race. The fact that CCP candidates would take the majority of Senate seats—43 out of 57—was a foregone conclusion.
In October, the National Assembly’s passage of a new law requiring military conscription for all men between 18 and 30 years of age raised international concern following years of efforts and millions of dollars to demobilize the army and remove guns and weapons from society. The government claims conscription is important for security reasons, but critics charge that it is a crude government attempt to provide employment for a rapidly growing population that includes 300,000 young men who enter that age bracket every year.
The other major story in 2006 is the establishment of a special tribunal to try surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Parliament approved a plan to establish a special tribunal in Phnom Penh with help from the United Nations in 2004, but a lack of funds—an estimated $57 million to sustain the tribunal for three years—has largely kept the plan from moving forward. With necessary funds now secured, the first trials are slated to begin in early 2007 with 17 Cambodian and 13 foreign experts chosen to sit on the tribunal. Of these 30 men and women, 14 will serve as judges and 2 as prosecutors, and 14 will be held in reserve. Under a 2001 Cambodian law, no Khmer Rouge leader is exempt from prosecution, including those, such as Ieng Sary, a foreign minister under the Khmer Rouge who received a royal pardon for genocide but not other crimes. There is an increasing urgency to begin trials as the top Khmer Rouge leaders are aging and dying—Pol Pot, the mastermind, died in 1998, and his successor Ta Mok died in June 2006. Paining millions of Cambodians who lost family under the genocidal regime, Khmer Rouge leaders still live freely, including Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s chief lieutenant; Khieu Samphan, head of state from 1976 to 1979; and Ieng Sary.
Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral Parliament consisting of a National Assembly and a Senate. The current constitution was promulgated in 1993 by the king, who also serves as head of state. Citing ill heath, King Norodom Sihanouk, now 84 years old, abdicated in 2004 and was succeeded by his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni. The new king inherited the throne with no political experience and after living abroad for much of his life. The monarchy remains highly revered by the people and is a symbol of national unity for the nation, but Sihamoni’s influence as compared to his father’s thus far remains unclear.
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. Assembly 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.
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. In addition to using the military and police to harass the opposition and suppress the media, the government uses defamation suits to imprison opposition politicians. Parliament members are now also denied immunity from libel. There are two other major political parties. The first is the eponymous Sam Rainsy Party, formerly the main opposition party and now the coalition party of the CCP. The second is the Funcipec Party, or royalist party, under the long-standing leadership of Prince Ranadriddh until his resignation in 2006, which has at various times been in partnership with and opposition to the ruling CCP.
Corruption is a very serious problem. Cambodia was ranked 151 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. A World Bank report released in August 2006 cited that “unofficial payments” are “frequent, mostly, or always required” for business transactions. The International Monetary Fund also concluded that corruption and bureaucratic red tape significantly hinder economic growth.
The government does not fully respect freedom of speech. Many newspapers and private television and radio stations operate in the country, including several owned and operated by the ruling and opposition parties, and there are no restrictions on privately owned satellite dishes receiving foreign broadcasts. However, the government exercises tight control of local broadcast media, which provide the primary source of information for most Cambodians. By comparison, newspapers reach only about 10 percent of the population; therefore, while print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize governmental policies and senior officials, their reach is quite limited. In the past two years, the government has nevertheless used defamation suits to harass journalists and indefinitely detain and imprison them. The internet is fairly free of government control, but high cost and lack of connectivity outside the capital and a few major cities limit access. While mobile telephones have gained widespread use among urban populations, Hun Sen banned the use of videos on mobile phones in May 2006, citing concerns about the spread of pornography.
The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists who can generally practice their faith freely, but discrimination against ethnic Cham Muslims is widespread. The government generally respects academic freedom, although criticism of the state is not well tolerated.
Freedoms of association and assembly are respected by the government to a certain degree because of pressure and scrutiny by international donors. Many civil society groups operate in Cambodia, work on a broad spectrum of issues, and receive funding from overseas donors. Nongovernmental human rights groups investigate and publicize abuses and carry out training and other activities. Public gatherings, protests, and marches occur and are rarely violent, although the government occasionally uses loyal thugs and uniformed police to intimidate participants.
Cambodia has 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 have also reported harassment and physical threats.
The 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 detention and the torture of suspects, is common. Delays in the judicial process and corruption allow many suspects to escape prosecution, which leads to impunity for some government officials and members of their families who commit crimes. Jails are seriously 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 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 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. People of Vietnamese heritage in Cambodia face various forms of discrimination and harassment by the state and society.
The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of travel and movement. The government generally respects this, but 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. Residents have been evicted by force and their homes demolished by government order without due process to determine ownership or compensation. The land grab has intensified in urban areas where real estate prices are rising. In one instance, 6,000 persons were left homeless. In rural areas, too, land grabs for commercial plantations have forced many people off the land, and some 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. The sex trade has fueled the spread of HIV/AIDS. The latest available data reports 130,000 infected adults and 16,000 deaths out of a population of 14 million for 2005, giving Cambodia among the highest infection and death rates in Asia.