Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodia Peoples Party (CPP) won the July 2013 national elections amid widespread reports of voter list irregularities and fraud. The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) rejected the results and led an unsuccessful call for the creation of an independent committee to investigate the irregularities. All 55 elected CNRP officials subsequently boycotted parliament, resulting in a single-party legislature forming a government without the CNRP. Sam Rainsy, long-time opposition leader and head of the CNRP, returned from exile in June, while hundreds of thousands of Cambodians participated in CNRP protests throughout the second half of the year calling for independent investigations of the election results.
Crackdowns on activists continued throughout the year. Police injured five protestors in March and some two dozen in May who were demonstrating against the government’s forced eviction of several hundred residents from Boeung Kak Lake for land development. More than 30 garment factory workers were injured by police in May while protesting low pay and dangerous working conditions.
The trials of former top Khmer Rouge leaders in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) concluded in October, with a verdict expected in 2014.
Relations with China continued to improve in 2013, with Beijing funding several massive infrastructure projects throughout Cambodia. Natural resource extraction initiatives and infrastructure projects by China, Vietnamese and European firms, and multinational organizations continue to negatively impact residents’ livelihoods and the environment due to endemic corruption and a lack of legal protections.
Political Rights: 10 / 40 (+1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 3 / 12
The current Cambodian constitution was promulgated in 1993 by former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October 2012. The monarchy remains highly revered as a symbol of national unity, but has little political power. King Norodom Sihamoni currently sits on the throne, having succeeded his ailing father in 2004.
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 two are appointed by the king, two are elected by the National Assembly, and 57 are chosen by local legislators. Senators serve six-year terms.
Elections in Cambodia are marred by vote-buying and fraudulent ballots, and the opposition is hampered by serious legal and sometimes physical harassment. Voting is tied to a citizen’s permanent resident status in a village, township, or urban district, and this status cannot be changed easily.
In the July 2013 national elections, the CPP captured 68 of 123 seats, marking its worst showing since 1998. The elections were marred by reports of duplicate voter names, vote buying, and large groups of voters casting ballots in communes where they were not registered; the NEC identified over 250,000 duplicate names and 290,000 missing names from voter rolls. The CNRP rejected the official results, charging that it had won 63 seats, and—despite the NEC’s findings—unsuccessfully petitioned for the creation of an independent authority to investigate its claims. As a result, 55 CNRP parliamentarians boycotted the results by refusing to take their seats in parliament at the assembly’s September 23 opening session. The CPP nominated Hun Sen for his fifth term as prime minister, and the single-party legislature formed a government without the CNRP. By year’s end, the legislature continued to be run solely by the CPP.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 4 / 16 (+1)
The constitution outlines the right of Cambodians to participate in multiparty democracy, but in practice space for the opposition is restricted. Harassment or threats against opposition supporters is not uncommon, and the CPP delivers vital jobs and financial rewards to supporters. Opposition leaders face legal suits for criticizing the ruling party.
In June 2013, longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia; Rainsy had been living in exile since 2010 following charges related to allegations he made that the government had ceded territory along the border to Vietnam. In 2012, Rainsy fused his Sam Rainsy Party with opposition leader Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP, creating the strongest opposition against the CPP in recent years. In May 2013, pro-government media carried remarks of an audio recording of Sokha allegedly expressing doubts about the existence of a Khmer Rouge-era prison; Sokha charged that the comments had been taken out of context in order to weaken the political opposition before the July elections. In June, the CPP-run National Assembly pushed through a law criminalizing genocide denial—a move widely viewed as a measure to increase anti-Sokha public sentiment—after having stripped 27 opposition lawmakers of their parliamentary status. The CPP used the lawmakers’ membership in multiple parties as a pretext for this action, as many CNRP parliamentarians were members of the now-defunct SRP and HRP. The group Article 19 condemned the genocide denial law for having been adopted in a deeply flawed manner, violating freedom of expression, and imposing harsh penalties on violators.
C. Functioning of Government: 3 / 12
Corruption is a serious problem that hinders economic development and social stability. A 2010 law established the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), though its implementation has been slow. The ACU investigated corruption allegations against state-owned Telecom Cambodia director-general Lao Saroeun in May. Many in the ruling elite abuse their positions for private gain. While increased investment in mining, forestry, agriculture, textile manufacturing, tourism, hydropower, and real estate has brought notable economic growth in recent years, these enterprises frequently involve land grabs by powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers.
Nepotism and patronage undermine the functioning of a proper, transparent bureaucratic system. Following unexpectedly poor showings in the 2013 elections, the CPP forced several party members to resign so that the sons of high-ranking party leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, could take seats in parliament.
Civil Liberties: 20 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 9 / 16
The government does not fully respect freedom of speech. The 2010 penal code continues to criminalize defamation and bars written criticism of public officials or institutions. The government has used lawsuits, criminal prosecution, and occasionally violent attacks as means of intimidation. Criticism of government policy is not well tolerated, and authorities are especially sensitive to media coverage of land grabs and extralegal resource extraction. The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court in August 2013 dropped charges against a military policeman and his wife who were accused of the September 2012 slaying of journalist Hang Serei Odom while he was investigating military involvement in timber smuggling. The death of Chut Wutty, an environmentalist killed in 2012 while assisting investigations into illegal logging, also remains unsolved. Independent radio owner Mam Sonando was arrested in 2012 on secession charges for coverage of a heavy-handed government crackdown on land protesters in Kratie, though international pressure prompted his release in May 2013.
Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize the government, but the print media reaches only about 10 percent of the population. There are roughly 20 privately owned print and broadcast outlets, including several owned and operated by the CPP and opposition parties, though several have closed in recent years due to financial difficulties. Broadcast licensing processes remain opaque. There are no restrictions on access to foreign broadcasts via satellite.
The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists and can generally practice their faith freely, but societal discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities remains a problem. Terrorist attacks by Islamist militants elsewhere in Southeast Asia in recent years have raised new suspicions about the 2.4 percent of the population who are Cham Muslims.
Teachers and students practice self-censorship regarding discussions about Cambodian politics and history. Criticism of the prime minister and his family is often punished.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 3 / 12
The government’s tolerance for freedoms of association and assembly has declined over the past few years. Crackdowns are unpredictable and often harsh. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians from across the country participated in major protests in the second half of 2013 calling for independent investigations into the results of the July elections. Police shot and killed a bystander at a checkpoint and wounded several others at a CNRP rally in September, though the CNRP massive demonstrations in late October and at the end of December calling for an independent investigation into the election results were tolerated.
Violence against activists continued in 2013, especially regarding issues surrounding forced evictions and workers’ rights. On November 22, the Supreme Court released on bail Yorm Bopha, a Boeung Kak activist imprisoned since September 2012 on ostensibly manufactured charges of assault. Her case was sent back to the Court of Appeals, which had upheld her conviction earlier in the year. Protests surrounding the controversial Boeung Kak Lake, a community from which the government has forcibly evicted several hundred residents for land development, are especially vulnerable to retaliation; police injured 5 protesters in March and another 20 in May.
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.
Cambodia has a small number of independent unions and workers have the right to strike, though many face retribution. Tensions between garment workers and law enforcement officials grew in 2013 as workers protested low wages and poor or dangerous working conditions. Police arrested eight demonstrators at a Nike factory in Kampong Speu province on June 3, and the factory later fired nearly 300 of the demonstrators. The government raised the minimum wage several times throughout the year from $61 a month to $100 in response to protests, but challenges to labor rights remain. A lack of resources and experience limit union success in collective bargaining, and union leaders report harassment and physical threats.
F. Rule of Law: 2 / 16
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 and prisoners, is common. Impunity of elites and sham trials are common. In June 2013, former Bavet governor Chhouk Bandith was convicted for the 2011 shooting of three protesters; he was sentenced to only one and a half years in prison. On February 8, 2013, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith released guidelines prohibiting lawyers from providing interviews to media outlets without approval of the CPP-associated Bar Association. Jails are severely overcrowded, and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care.
On September 25, the Supreme Court ordered the release of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who had been convicted of killing union leader Chea Vichea in 2004 and had served five years in prison. Domestic and international rights groups had long said the defendants were scapegoats in an effort to deflect a legitimate investigation into the death of the labor activist.
Government interference and lack of capacity continues to beset the ECCC, which was established to try the leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The trials faced repeated setbacks during 2013, including a $7 billion budget shortfall, two strikes of unpaid court workers, and the March 14 death of former Khmer Rouge foreign minister and defendant Ieng Sary while on trial. The ECCC has found only one major regime official guilty, former chief of the Tuol Sleng prison, Kang Kek “Duch” Ieu; he was sentenced in 2010 to 35 years in prison, a term later reduced to 19 years. The trial against defendants Nuon Chea, 86, and Khieu Samphan, 81, concluded in October, with a verdict expected in 2014. The remaining leader, Ieng Thirith, was declared mentally unfit to stand trial and released in 2012.
Minorities, especially those of ethnic Vietnamese descent, often face discrimination. The government has cracked down harshly on minority protests, notably the ethnically Vietnamese Khmer Krom community, though no specific incidents have been reported in recent years.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 6 / 16
The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of travel and movement, and the government generally respects this right in practice. However, reports surfaced in September 2013 that police prevented protesters in Svay Rieng province from traveling to Phnom Penh to participate in opposition demonstrations.
Land and property rights are regularly abused for the sake of private development projects. Some groups estimate the state has seized around 22 percent of Cambodia’s land in concessions to private developers. Over the past several years, hundreds of thousands of people have been forcibly removed from their homes in both rural and urban areas—with little or no compensation or relocation assistance—to make room for commercial plantations, mine operations, factories, and high-end office and residential developments. Senior 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 violence against women, including acid attacks, is common. The state convicted an acid attack perpetrator in January 2013, the first since the passage of a 2011 law outlawing the practice. However, advocates maintain that attacks are still frequent due to ease of access to such chemicals. Men, women, and children are frequently trafficked to and from Cambodia for prostitution and forced labor, and the government has done little to address the issue or provide assistance to victims.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year