Cambodia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party secured 90 of 123 seats in July 2008 parliamentary elections. International observers said the elections fell short of international standards but were “technically good.” Rising food and fuel prices, growing economic disparity, rising unemployment, and corruption were among the top issues for Cambodian voters.

Cambodia won independence from France in 1953. King Norodom Sihanouk ruled until he was ousted in 1970 by U.S.-backed military commander Lon Nol, and the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. Between 250,000 and two million of Cambodia’s seven million people died from disease, overwork, starvation, or execution under the Khmer Rouge before Vietnamese forces toppled the regime and installed a new communist government 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 open warfare, but the Khmer Rouge waged a low-grade insurgency until its disintegration in the late 1990s.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who first entered government as part of the Vietnamese-backed regime in 1979, dominates Cambodian politics. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) uses its control of the National Assembly as well as the military, courts, and police to remove and outmaneuver all opposition. For example, to stop opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s criticism of government corruption and abuses, the CPP-dominated National Assembly stripped him and fellow Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) legislators of their parliamentary immunity in 2005. Sam Rainsy fled to France and was convicted in absentia for defaming Hun Sen. He returned to Cambodia in 2006, after international pressure led to a negotiated settlement that included a royal pardon and a public apology by Sam Rainsy. Similarly, Hun Sen used a newly passed antiadultery law in 2006 to press charges against Norodom Ranariddh, head of the Funcinpec party. Ranariddh fled to France and was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison. Funcinpec also ousted and sued Ranariddh for allegedly embezzling $3.6 million from the sale of the party headquarters. In recent years, Hun Sen has adopted a divide-and-rule strategy against the opposition by selectively forming coalitions with some parties to outmaneuver others, which has served to fracture and weaken the opposition.

A special tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was established in 2007 to try former Khmer Rouge officials for genocide and other crimes against humanity. The tribunal’s launch had been delayed for years by bureaucratic and funding obstacles. It would have $56.3 million and three years to complete its work, and cases would be decided by majority vote among the five justices, three of whom are Cambodian. The maximum penalty would be life imprisonment, and foreign lawyers could represent defendants. Victims must file complaints to the court as a group. By the end of 2008, five former high-level Khmer Rouge leaders had been charged, marking the first time anyone had faced charges for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. The accused were former head of state Khieu Samphan, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, former second-in-command of the Khmer Rouge Nuon Chea, and former chief of the Tuol Sleng prison Kang Kek Ieu (or “Duch”). Khmer Rouge mastermind Pol Pot and his successor, Ta Mok, died before they could be brought to trial. All of the defendants except Ieng Sary appeared before the court and pleaded not guilty in January and February 2008.

In the run-up to parliamentary elections on July 27, 2008, a journalist with long ties to the SRP and his son were shot and killed on July 1in the capital. Still, there was much less violence and overt government intimidation of journalists and the opposition than in previous elections. Eleven political parties participated, and there were more than 17,000 monitors from local and international organizations. Monitors from the European Union (EU) said the elections fell short of international standards but were “technically good.” As in past elections, the CPP was accused of making “consistent and widespread” use of state resources for its campaign efforts, and it dominated the media. The ruling party made substantial gains, taking 90 of the 123 National Assembly seats, up from 73. The SRP took 26 seats, an increase of two; Funcinpec was reduced to just two, from 26; the Human Rights Party, founded in July 2007, took 3 seats; and the new Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP) took 2 seats.

Opposition parties rejected the results, citing political intimidation and violence, and alleged that the National Election Committee worked with pro-CPP local authorities to delete potential opposition supporters from the voter rolls, changed polling stations shortly before voting began to confuse opposition supporters, and issued fraudulent forms that allowed people not on the rolls to vote. Nevertheless, with the opposition divided and unproven in the eyes of the electorate, and the country enjoying relative political stability and sustained moderate economic growth, the CPP commanded a measure of credibility despite public frustration with widespread corruption and other problems. The government’s strong response to a border dispute with Thailand near the Preah Vihear temple also stirred nationalist sentiment and bolstered support for the CPP. The International Court of Justice had awarded the temple area to Cambodia in 1962.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. The current constitution was promulgated in 1993 by the king, who serves as head of state. The monarchy remains highly revered by the people as a symbol of national unity. Prince Norodom Sihamoni, who has lived abroad for much of his life, succeeded his father, King Norodom Sihanouk, in 2004 after the latter abdicated for health reasons.

The government, consisting of the prime minister and a council of ministers, must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the 123-seat National Assembly. Assembly members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The upper house of the bicameral parliament, the Senate, has 61 members, of whom 2 are appointed by the king, 2 are elected by the National Assembly, and 57 are chosen by functional constituencies. Senators serve five-year terms.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP dominate national and local politics through their control of the security forces, officials at all levels of government, and the state-owned media. Voting is tied to a citizen’s permanent resident status in a village, township, or urban district, and this status cannot be changed easily. The CPP’s strong influence in rural areas, with its presence of party members and control of government officials, gives it an advantage over the opposition SRP, which finds support mainly in urban centers.

Corruption and abuse of power are serious problems, and many high-ranking government officials abuse their positions for private gains. Cambodia was ranked 166 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008Corruption Perceptions Index. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have found that official corruption is widespread and significantly hinders economic growth. Although the economy has been growing as a result of increased investments in mining, forestry, agriculture, textile manufacturing, tourism, and real estate, among other sectors, these enterprises frequently involve land grabs by the political elite, top bureaucrats, and the military. Growing economic disparity and rising food and fuel prices add to the public’s frustrations. Nevertheless, there appears to have been little reform of the country’s deeply entrenched corruption and patronage networks since the World Bank designated Cambodia a fragile state in 2006, warning of the government’s increasing authoritarian tendencies and deteriorating human rights conditions. With the weak opposition undermined by internecine fighting and international donors prioritizing political stability (as with China, France, and Japan) and issues like human and drug trafficking and terrorism (as with the United States), the regime seems to pay only lip service to the need to improve governance and combat corruption. In 2008, the international donor community pledged nearly $1 billion in assistance to Cambodia.  

The government does not fully respect freedom of speech; media controls are largely focused on local broadcast outlets, which are the primary source of information for most Cambodians. There are many newspapers and private television and radio stations, including several owned and operated by the CPP and opposition parties. There are no restrictions on privately owned satellite dishes receiving foreign broadcasts. Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize government policies and senior officials, but the print media reach only about 10 percent of the population. The internet is fairly free of government control, but access is largely limited to urban centers. Mobile telephone use is spreading rapidly, especially among urban populations, but usage is still lower than in neighboring countries such as Vietnam.

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 work on a broad spectrum of issues and offer social services, frequently with funding from overseas donors. Nevertheless, groups that work to advance human rights or assist victims of unlawful land grabs face greater levels of harassment from the state compared to groups that work on social or health issues.Public gatherings, protests, and marches occur and are rarely violent, although the government occasionally uses police and others to intimidate participants.

Cambodia has a small number of independent unions. Workers have the right to strike, and many have done so to protest low wages and poor or dangerous working conditions. However, a lack of resources and experience limits union success in collective bargaining. Union leaders have 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 subject to political pressure from the CPP. Lower courts in particular do not meet basic international standards. 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. 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 to be involved in, the trafficking of guns, drugs, and people, as well as other crimes. A 2006 law requiring military conscription for all men between the ages of 18 and 30 raised international concern given the years of international effort and millions of dollars spent to demobilize the army and remove weapons from society. The government claimed the measure was designed to bolster security, but critics said it was a crude attempt to provide employment for a rapidly growing population.

Discrimination against ethnic Cham Muslims is common. The Chams have come under new suspicion from the ethnic Khmer majority in the wake of Islamist terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Extreme poverty and a lack of government assistance have compelled many to seek help from overseas donors. People of Vietnamese descent also face various forms of discrimination and harassment by the state and society. Upland communities, including many tribal groups, have found their rights infringed or violated as the government and investors take over their land for commercial plantations.

The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of travel and movement. The government generally respects this right, but there have been reports of authorities restricting travel for opposition politicians, particularly during election campaigns. Although the economy continues to grow, the ruling elites often abuse their positions and violate the property rights of others.

Women suffer widespread economic and social discrimination. Females lag behind males in secondary and higher education. Rape and domestic violence are common and are often tied to alcohol and drug abuse by men, as well as weak police attention and hesitation among victims to report these crimes. Women and girls are trafficked inside and outside of Cambodia for prostitution, and the sex trade has fueled the spread of HIV/AIDS. In February 2008, legislation went into effect giving authorities greater power to investigate allegations of trafficking, and international pressure and funding have motivated the government to form a national task force that will bring together government ministers, law enforcement agencies, and international bodies to address the problem. Cambodian law does not explicitly define prostitution as illegal, but police routinely conduct raids in response to international pressure to combat the sexual exploitation of juveniles. In June 2008, about 200 prostitutes publicly protested against police crackdowns in the capital. They alleged unlawful detention and physical and sexual abuse while in custody. Critics of police abuses have also alleged that police use raids to obtain bribes from prostitutes and brothels.