Cambodia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2012

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In June 2011, the UN-backed tribunal trying former leaders of the Khmer Rouge placed the remaining four defendants on trial, following the conviction of the first in 2010. But tribunal staff members resigned after the body proved unwilling to investigate other suspects still at large. Critics of the government continued to face legal harassment, while the leadership used a border dispute with Thailand to boost nationalism and consolidate the power of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family. Separately, new incidents of land grabs by companies with links to the government, along with protests against these practices, continued in the Cambodian countryside.

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 communist Khmer Rouge (KR) seized power in 1975. Approximately two million of Cambodia’s seven million people died from disease, overwork, starvation, or execution under the KR 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 KR, and other political contenders. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords halted open warfare, but the KR continued to wage a low-grade insurgency until its disintegration in the late 1990s.

Since entering government as part of the Vietnamese-backed regime in 1979, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have played a leading role in the country’s politics, generally controlling the National Assembly, military, courts, and police. Opposition figures, journalists, and democracy advocates have been given criminal sentences or faced violent attacks by unknown assailants in public spaces.

In the early 1990s, Hun Sen used his control of the security forces to coerce the royalist party, known as Funcinpec, into sharing power, even though Funcinpec won the largest number of seats in the first parliamentary elections after the peace accords, held in 1993. Hun Sen later ousted the prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh of Funcinpec, in a 1997 coup, and the CPP won a majority of seats in the 1998 parliamentary elections, which were held under restrictive conditions.

The deeply flawed parliamentary elections in 2003 featured violence and voter intimidation by the CPP. Nevertheless, the party failed to obtain the two-thirds majority required to form a government. Following the formation of a CPP-Funcinpec coalition, Hun Sen turned to silencing opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s attacks on government corruption and abuse. After fleeing the country, Rainsy was convicted in absentia of defaming Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen in 2005. However, under pressure from international donors, Hun Sen negotiated a settlement in 2006 that allowed Rainsy to receive a royal pardon and return to Cambodia in exchange for a public apology and a withdrawal of his allegations.

In the 2008 elections, the CPP took 90 of 123 parliamentary seats, and Hun Sen was reelected as prime minister. Opposition parties rejected the results, citing political intimidation and violence. However, with the opposition divided and unproven in the eyes of voters, and the country enjoying relative political stability and sustained economic growth, the CPP had started to command a measure of popular credibility. Meanwhile, Rainsy returned to exile ahead of a 2010 conviction on charges related to his claims that the government had ceded territory along the border to Vietnam, and he remained outside the country at the end of 2011.

In June 2011, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia began trial proceedings against four high-ranking former KR officials on charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity. The UN-backed tribunal’s efforts had been delayed for years by bureaucratic and funding obstacles following its establishment in 2007. In July 2010, the former chief of the Tuol Sleng prison, Kang Kek Ieu (also known as Duch), was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to 35 years in prison, reduced to 19 years given time served. One of the four remaining defendants, 80-year-old former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, was found mentally incompetent to stand trial in November 2011, but she remained in detention at year’s end pending further evaluations.

While the international judges on the court have sought to charge and try additional suspects, they have been rebuffed by their Cambodian colleagues. Hun Sen allegedly does not want the tribunal to delve too deeply into the past or weaken the prevailing climate of impunity for the powerful; he has publicly called for the tribunal not to investigate any other former KR officials. Human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch have called on the tribunal’s investigating judges to step down for failing to effectively conduct investigations of KR suspects. Several tribunal staff members, including a German investigating judge, resigned in 2011 over the body’s failure to proceed with two pending cases that had not yet resulted in indictments.

Throughout 2011, the government used a growing controversy over a temple on the disputed border with Thailand to boost nationalism and place more power in the hands of Hun Sen’s son, who personally oversaw Cambodian forces on the border. The authorities also took steps to restrict civil society activity. In August, the government started informing local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on contentious resettlement issues that their activities would now be suspended, while the National Assembly advanced a draft law that would subject NGOs to a registration process and give the government wide latitude to reject their applications. The law was still being debated at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Cambodian courts continued to uphold tough sentences against civil society activists and opposition politicians. In July, an appeals court upheld a two-year sentence against human rights worker Leang Sokchouen for allegedly spreading disinformation. Earlier in the year, security forces had broken up multiple rallies in downtown Phnom Penh that aimed to highlight labor abuses, corruption, and the position of women in Cambodian society. Later in the year, the government sent letters to local NGOs warning and threatening them, and suspended one in August.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. Although it holds regular elections, they are conducted under often repressive conditions, and the opposition is hampered by serious legal and physical harassment. The current constitution was promulgated in 1993 by the king, who serves as head of state. The monarchy remains highly revered as a symbol of national unity, but has little political power. Prince Norodom Sihamoni, who lived abroad for much of his life, succeeded his father, King Norodom Sihanouk, in 2004, after the latter abdicated for health reasons. Some palace experts charge that Sihamoni is a virtual prisoner of the government, with no control over his own activities.

The prime minister and cabinet must be approved by a majority vote in the 123-seat National Assembly, whose members are elected by party-list voting 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 local legislators. Senators serve six-year terms. 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 local and provincial government officials, gives it an advantage over the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, which finds support mainly in urban centers. Continued economic growth and political patronage in recent years has led to a rise in popular support for the CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Corruption is a serious problem that hinders economic development and social stability. Many in the ruling elite abuse their positions for private gain. While economic growth in recent years has been sustained by increased investment in mining, forestry, agriculture, textile manufacturing, tourism, hydropower, and real estate, these enterprises frequently involve land grabs by powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers. Repeated efforts by international donors to promote tough anticorruption laws have been stalled and watered down by the government.

The government does not fully respect freedom of speech. Media controls are largely focused on local broadcast outlets. Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize the government, but the print media reach only about 10 percent of the population. There are many privately owned print and broadcast outlets, including several owned and operated by the CPP and opposition parties, though broadcast licensing processes remain opaque. There are no restrictions on access to foreign broadcasts via satellite. The government has increasingly used lawsuits and criminal prosecution as means of media intimidation over the past three years. A 2010 penal code drew criticism for several vague provisions relating to freedom of expression, including one that criminalizes any action that “affects the dignity” of a public official. The internet is fairly free of government control, though access is largely limited to urban centers.

The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists and can generally practice their faith freely, but societal discrimination against ethnic Cham Muslims remains a problem. Terrorist attacks by Islamist militants elsewhere in Southeast Asia in recent years have raised new suspicions about Muslims. The government generally respects academic freedom, though criticism of the prime minister and his family is often punished.

The authorities’ tolerance for freedoms of association and assembly has declined over the past two years. Civil society groups work on a broad spectrum of issues and offer social services, frequently with funding from overseas. Those that work on social or health issues, as opposed to justice and human rights, generally face less harassment from the state. Public gatherings, protests, and marches occur and are rarely violent. However, the government has used police and other forces to intimidate participants and break up demonstrations with greater frequency. In April 2011, the authorities dispersed several rallies held to commemorate Women’s Day, and Sam Rainsy Party workers charged that security forces prevented them from holding rallies in Phnom Penh and other towns on multiple occasions during the year. In September, activists trying to hold a rally to stop the forced resettlement of Phnom Penh residents were severely beaten by police.

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. Lack of resources and experience limits union success in collective bargaining, and union leaders report harassment and physical threats. The garment industry has made several compacts with international companies to ensure the fair treatment of workers, but these have not prevented the harassment of union leaders in the industry. Those who led strikes in late 2010 and early 2011 were targeted by the police and frequently detained, putting a damper on union activity among garment workers during 2011.

The judiciary is marred by inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of independence. There is a severe shortage of lawyers, and the system’s poorly trained judges are subject to political pressure from the CPP, which has also undermined the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Abuse by law enforcement officers, including illegal detention and the torture of suspects, is common. 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, the trafficking of guns, drugs, and people, as well as other crimes.

The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of travel and movement, and the government generally respects this right. However, there have been reports of authorities restricting travel for opposition politicians, particularly during election campaigns. The Cambodian government closed the UN refugee center in Phnom Penh in early 2011, making it more difficult for Uighurs from China, Montagnards from Vietnam, and other people fleeing persecution to gain refugee status in Cambodia.

Land and property rights are regularly abused for the sake of private development projects. Over the past several years, tens of thousands of people have been forcibly removed—from both rural and urban areas, and with little or no compensation or relocation assistance—to make room for commercial plantations, mine operations, factories, and high-end office and residential developments. High-ranking officials and their family members are frequently involved in these ventures, alongside international investors. In the most prominent case, thousands of people in central Phnom Penh have been displaced as the lake they lived on is filled in for a development project controlled by a wealthy investor with close ties to the prime minister. In August 2011, representatives of the displaced people protested to complain that they had received no compensation or aid. The government refused to respond to their grievances, and protests continued throughout the year. In December, the government offered to give a small number of residents title to their land, allowing them to stay, presumably in different housing. However, most of the original residents of the lake area had already fled or been forced off their land.

Women suffer widespread economic and social discrimination, lagging behind men in secondary and higher education, and many die from difficulties related to pregnancy and childbirth. Rape and domestic violence are common and are often tied to alcohol and drug abuse by men. Women and girls are trafficked inside and outside of Cambodia for prostitution, and the country has become one of the trafficking centers of Asia, according to a detailed study released in 2011 by Human Rights Watch.