Cambodia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2013

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The UN-backed tribunal trying former leaders of the Khmer Rouge experienced severe problems in 2012, with several foreign judges resigning amid allegations of government meddling and public outrage after a former high-ranking official was declared mentally unfit to stand trial. Violent crackdowns on journalists and protesters occurred throughout the year, including against those attempting to organize around meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Cambodia hosted in 2012.

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. 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 2012.

Local elections were held at the commune level in 2012, with the CPP winning nearly every commune. International observers found widespread electoral irregularities; Reporters Without Borders noted that the Cambodian information ministry had banned foreign broadcasters such as Radio Free Asia from reporting on the elections and from transmitting their broadcasts throughout Cambodia. Participation in the elections fell to 54 percent of eligible voters, down from 87 percent ten years prior.

There remains a great deal of controversy surrounding attempts to try the accused perpetrators of atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge regime. 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. 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. One of the four defendants, Ieng Thirith, was declared mentally unfit to stand trial, a verdict that sparked widespread public protest; she was released in 2012. Meanwhile, several foreign judges quit the tribunal in 2011 and 2012 after having their attempts to charge and try additional suspects rebuffed by their Cambodian colleagues. Hun Sen has publicly called for the tribunal not to investigate any other former KR officials, and allegedly does not want the tribunal to delve too deeply into the past or weaken the prevailing climate of impunity for the powerful.

In 2012, the government eased its dispute with Thailand over a shared border temple, in part because the new Thai government, elected in 2011, was led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former Cambodian prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and a friend of Hun Sen. The government had been using the conflict to boost nationalism and place more power in the hands of Hun Sen’s son, who oversaw Cambodian forces on the border.

In 2012, Cambodia served as the host of meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a task that rotates among members of the 10-country organization. At the organization’s July meeting for foreign ministers, several ASEAN members alleged that Cambodian officials had been leaking information about internal ASEAN deliberations to China, which is Cambodia’s largest donor and investor. Also at the meeting, the organization was unable to come to a consensus on a statement regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and some members accused Cambodia of purposely blocking consensus on behalf of China. Meanwhile, violence against activists and journalists intensified in 2012, including against those attempting to organize around the ASEAN meetings.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. Elections 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.

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 a 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. In September 2012, journalist Hang Serei Odom, who had focused on illegal logging and its link to wealthy politicians, was killed, allegedly by a military policeman. His colleagues urged a more thorough investigation into the murder, but none was forthcoming. In April, writer and environmentalist Chut Watty, who focused on logging in protected forests, also was murdered, allegedly by police. The internet is fairly free of government control, though access is largely limited to urban centers. In November 2012, the Ministry of Communications issued a decree prohibiting internet cafes from being located within 500 meters of a school or allowing access to websites with pornographic content or those used for playing games, such as betting on football. Critics of the decree, including Reporters Without Borders, charge that the provisions can be widely interpreted by the authorities and represent a step toward tighter government control over the internet.

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 few years, with violence against activists increasing in 2012. Authorities jailed at least thirteen women during the year, plus one activist monk, for protesting the forced resettlement of families at Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh; in several instances, demonstrators also used violence, including throwing Molotov cocktails at police and smashing officers with bricks. In January, authorities opened fire on demonstrators in a land dispute in Kratie Province, and in February, local authorities shot three protestors in Bavet during a labor rally. A few weeks later, a girl was killed by authorities while protesting a forced eviction.

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. Civil society activists who attempted to organize during the 2012 ASEAN meetings hosted by Cambodia were detained and kept out of meeting spaces, allegedly had electricity to their gatherings cut, and were arrested for trying to bring the issue of land evictions to members of the media present at the ASEAN events.

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.

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.

Women suffer widespread economic and social discrimination, lagging behind men in secondary and higher education. Rape and domestic violence are common and are often tied to alcohol and drug abuse by men. Women and girls are trafficked to and from Cambodia for prostitution.