GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS IN CAMBODIA

GOVERNMENT IN CAMBODIA

Government type: parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. Foreign aid makes up about half of the national budget. In the early 1990s, the international community invested about $1.5 billion in a U.N. effort to restore civil government to Cambodia.

The politics of Cambodia takes place in a framework of a constitutional monarchy, whereby the Prime Minister is the head of government and a Monarch is head of state. The kingdom formally takes place according to the nation's constitution (enacted in 1993) in a framework of a parliamentary, representative democracy. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in the two chambers of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate.

Cambodia is a one party dominant state with the Cambodian People's Party in power. Cambodia has an elected Parliamentary government somewhat similar to the one in Great Britain. The prime minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament. Parliamentary elections are held every five years. If no one party controls a majority of the seats the is often a weak, bickering coalition government led by a heavy handed, dictatorial prime minister.

Sopheng Cheang of Associated Press wrote: “Cambodian politics are dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen -- who came to power in a bloody 1997 coup but has overseen the country's democratic reforms -- and analysts say the rule of law and press freedoms have not taken root. [Source: Sopheng Cheang, Associated Press, April 8, 2013]

Local divisions: 22 provinces and two cities.

Flag: The Cambodian flag was adopted in 1948 when Cambodia became a member of the French Union. It was retained when Cambodia became independent in 1955. In the middle of the red stipe is a likeness of Angkor Wat. Motto, “Nation, Religion, King.”

Monarchy and the Royal Family, See Separate Article.

Names for Cambodia

The English name “Cambodia” and the French name Cambodge” are Westernized transliterations of Kambuja, a Sanskrit name used by some ancient kingdoms in the region. From 1975 to 1989 Cambodia was called Kampuchea. In 1989 it was renamed Cambodia. The name Kambuja is associated with Kambu Svayammbhuna, the legendary founder of the Khmer civilization. The Khmers often refer to themselves as “Khmae” and the country as srok Khmae . Cambodia was once called Noko Kokthlok ("County of the Island of Trees”)

Cambodia was named Democratic Kampuchea instead of Cambodia to please the Khmer Rouge, of all groups. According to historian David P. Chandler, both Cambodia and Kampuchea are derived from "Kambuja," a Sanskrit word thought to have been applied originally to a north Indian tribe. The selection of "Cambodia," therefore, was without ideological connotation. It is more recognizable to the English-speaking reader, and it adheres to the standard practice of the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN), which also has been followed in the spelling of all place names.

In April 1989, after the cut-off date of research for this book, Prime Minister Hun Sen of the People's Republic of Kampuchea announced that the name of the country had been changed to the State of Cambodia. In recent years some provinces have been combined, renamed, and then divided again several times. The most recent case is that of Bantay Meanchey, the formation of which-- from parts of Batdambang, Siemreab-Otdar Meanchey, and Pouthisat-- was announced in late 1987 to take effect in 1988.

Short History of Cambodia

Cambodian culture is rooted in Indian culture and Buddhism and has incorporated elements from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Java Cambodia has been frequently pressured by its two large neighbors—Thailand and Vietnam, both of whom established protectorates over Cambodia.

According to Lonely Planet: The good, the bad and the ugly is a simple way to sum up Cambodian history. Things were good in the early years, culminating in the vast Angkor empire, unrivalled in the region during four centuries of dominance. Then the bad set in, from the 13th century, as ascendant neighbours steadily chipped away at Cambodian territory. In the 20th century it turned downright ugly, as a brutal civil war culminated in the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975–79), from which Cambodia is still recovering. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The Khmer people were among the first in Southeast Asia to adopt religious ideas and political institutions from India and to establish centralized kingdoms encompassing large territories. The earliest known kingdom in the area, Funan, flourished from around the first to the sixth century A.D. It was succeeded by Chenla, which controlled large areas of modern Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand (known as Siam until 1939). The golden age of Khmer civilization, however, was the period from the ninth to the thirteenth century, when the kingdom of Kambuja, which gave Kampuchea, or Cambodia, its name, ruled large territories from its capital in the region of Angkor in western Cambodia. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

Under Jayavarman VII (1181-ca. 1218), Kambuja reached its zenith of political power and cultural creativity. Following Jayavarman VII's death, Kambuja experienced gradual decline. Important factors were the aggressiveness of neighboring peoples (especially the Thai, or Siamese), chronic interdynastic strife, and the gradual deterioration of the complex irrigation system that had ensured rice surpluses. The Angkorian monarchy survived until 1431, when the Thai captured Angkor Thom and the Cambodian king fled to the southern part of his country. *

The fifteenth to the nineteenth century was a period of continued decline and territorial loss. Cambodia enjoyed a brief period of prosperity during the sixteenth century because its kings, who built their capitals in the region southeast of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) along the Mekong River, promoted trade with other parts of Asia. This was the period when Spanish and Portuguese adventurers and missionaries first visited the country. But the Thai conquest of the new capital at Lovek in 1594 marked a downturn in the country's fortunes and Cambodia became a pawn in power struggles between its two increasingly powerful neighbors, Siam and Vietnam. Vietnam's settlement of the Mekong Delta led to its annexation of that area at the end of the seventeenth century. Cambodia thereby lost some of its richest territory and was cut off from the sea. Such foreign encroachments continued through the first half of the nineteenth century because Vietnam was determined to absorb Khmer land and to force the inhabitants to accept Vietnamese culture. Such imperialistic policies created in the Khmer an abiding suspicion of their eastern neighbors that flared into violent confrontation after the Khmer Rouge established its regime in 1975. *

In 1863 King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to establish a protectorate over his kingdom. The country gradually came under French colonial domination. During World War II, the Japanese allowed the French government (based at Vichy) that collaborated with the Nazis the Vichy French to continue administering Cambodia and the other Indochinese territories, but they also fostered Khmer nationalism. Cambodia enjoyed a brief period of independence in 1945 before Allied troops restored French control.

Cambodian Constitution

Cambodia's current constitution, its third since the first monarchy constitution promulgated in 1947, was drawn up with the help of the United Nations and adopted on September 21, 1993. After many unusually drastic, changes of different types of governance under different regimes, the 1993 Constitution marked the establishment of a liberal democratic state and a market economy as the foundations of Cambodia's social, political and economic structure.

The Constitution guarantees a broad range of civil liberties and fundamental rights. Citizens are to be equal before the law and are entitled to enjoy the same rights and duties regardless of sex, religion, or race. They have the right to participate in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the country and to be paid according to the amount and quality of work they perform. Men and women are entitled to equal pay for equal work. All individuals--including monks and soldiers--over the age of eighteen may vote, and citizens over twenty-one may run for election. The Constitution also guarantees the inviolability of people and of their homes; privacy of correspondence; freedom from illegal search and arrest; the right to claim reparation for damages caused by illegal actions of the state, social organizations, and their personnel; and freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly. The exercise of fundamental rights, however, is subject to certain restrictions. For example, an act may not injure the honor of other persons, nor should it adversely affect the mores and customs of society, or public order, or national security. In line with the principle of socialist collectivism, citizens are obligated to carry out "the state's political line and defend collective property." [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The Constitution also addresses principles governing culture, education, social welfare, and public health. Development of language, literature, the arts, and science and technology is stressed, along with the need for cultural preservation, tourist promotion, and cultural cooperation with foreign countries. Provisions for state organs are in the constitutional chapters dealing with the National Assembly, the Council of State, the Council of Ministers, the local people's revolutionary committees, and the judiciary.*

History of the Cambodian Constitution

The system of Constitutionality control did not exist in the history of Cambodia . The Constitution of May 6, 1947 , which had been modified successively until March 31, 1964 , provided for the competence to interpret constitutional text in its article 119 but did not state the constitutionality control. The competence to final interpretation was left to the National Assembly. [Source: Constitutional Council of Cambodia]

The Constitution of April 30, 1972 of the Khmer Republic set up a system of constitutionality control under the name of Constitutional Court . Despite its name, this body functioned completely apart from the judiciary power. This bore western influence. The advent of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975 led to the massacre and the utter destruction of infrastructures and the rule of laws till the end of 1978.

After the liberation, January 7, 1979 , along with the reconstruction of the nation in all fields, the restoration of legislative system was active. The 1981 Constitution of the People's Republic of Kampuchea vested the law interpretation in the Council of State which did this in the status of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly. The 1989 Constitution of the State of Cambodia provided for the law interpretation by the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly. But at that time, the interpretation of the Constitution and the control of the constitutionality did not exist.

The new Constitution, adopted September 21, 1993 by the Constituent Assembly which emerged from the election sponsored by the United Nations in 1993, was promulgated September 24, 1993 . Consequently, western influence returned. The new Chapter XII of the Constitution provides for the Constitutional Council. This recalls, in many respects, the French Constitutional Council. However, there are differences from the French Constitutional Council, particularly, a posteriori control of constitutionality and public hearing of cases concerning general election. The public hearing is stipulated in the Law on General Election, promulgated December 26, 1997.

The 1993 Constitution has been amended five times: 1) The first time, July 14, 1994 concerning the delegation of power from the King's signature to the Acting Head of State. 2) The second time, March 8, 1999 , for the institution of Senate. 3) The third time, July 28, 2001 , for the creating and conferring national medals by the king. 4) The fourth time, June 19, 2005 , for the amendment of quorum of the session and the adopting vote of the National Assembly and the Senate. 5) The fifth time, March 9, 2006 , for the amendment of quorum of the session and the adopting vote of the National Assembly and the Senate.

Terms of the Cambodian Constitution

The main goal of the Royal Government is to ensure peace, stability, and national unity. In order to create a political stability conducive to the economic and social development, and the alleviation of poverty, Cambodia respect of human rights must be firmly promoted.[Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

1) Pacification: The Royal Government adheres to national solidarity. To respect the consuls of His Majesty the King, the Cambodians from all walks of life and political backgrounds from every corner of the world must come together to defense their national's independence, peace and prosperity.

2) Liberal Democratic Process and Respect of Human Rights: The Royal Government adheres to the principle of democratic pluralism and to the respect of human rights for which, it strongly believes they are fundamental to the social progress. The democratization and liberalization of all social fabrics must be rapidly addressed, because they are the essential forces of economic and social developments. The Royal Government assures and protest freedom of its citizenry bestowed in the Constitution, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the Convenants on Civil and Political Rights and Social, Economic and Cultural Right, and in the Convention on the Rights of Women and Children. It strongly opposes racial hatred. The overall structure of the state run human rights institution would be upgraded.

3) Freedom of the Press and of Expression: The Royal Government vigorously supports freedom of the press, freedom of expression and of assembly, which freely contribute to social and political conscience. In order to seek different shade and color of opinions, public forums are encouraged to take place. At the same time, freedom and anarchy should be clearly differentiated. The Constitution provides its citizenry their freedoms to be enjoyed and honored, not to be destructive and intrusive.

4) The Role of Oppositions: To mobilize the wisdom from all walks of life and backgrounds to build the nation, the Royal Government widely supports the role of oppositions for constructive criticism, and for good services to the nation. The oppositions have full legal rights to perform its political activities. They are fully guarantied by the Royal Government equal social and political benefits, such as freedom, justice, security, and employment. They may assist Cambodia's young democracy to be fully developed. They do not have to implicate themselves in order to be labeled oppositions. The Royal Government and the oppositions would have to promote jointly the national interest, the social stability, and the welfare of the people, so that Cambodia and her people may enjoy the fruits of long lasting political strength and national stability. The role of the oppositions shall be defined in the law.

5) The Participation of the Civil Society: The Royal Government and the civil society shall incorporate their principle of state of law into strengthening democracy, liberty, and social law and order. They may not develop the country by conflicting interests between civil and political societies. The civil society shall be a key partner of the Royal Government in the construction of Cambodia. In view, the Royal Government would endorse the multiple activities of the non-governmental organizations and of associations, which have served the Cambodian people nationwide. It will appropriate special funds and allocate them to the non-governmental organization in providing services on its behalf to the needly. The Royal Government would welcome the participation of the international non-government organizations in the process of rehabilitation of economic development and in the promotion of democracy and human rights. Therefore, it needs drafting a law on the non-government organizations and associations.

6. The Rule of Law: The rule of law is the basic principle of democracy, the sustainability of the government, and of all institutions. It is to ensure freedom, national interest, justice, harmony, and social sustainability. A forceful legal structure to end assaults on human dignity is urgently needed. The enforcement and education of law would be widely disseminated. All men areborn free and equal, but they must not be allowed to be above the law. A set of law must be applied equally to all.

Cambodian Government Structure

The "supreme organ of state power" is the National Assembly, whose deputies are directly elected for five-year terms. The assembly had been empowered to adopt or to amend the Constitution and the laws and to oversee their implementation; to determine domestic and foreign policies; to adopt economic and cultural programs and the state budget; and to elect or to remove its own officers and members of the Council of State and of the Council of Ministers. The assembly also was authorized to levy, revise, or abolish taxes; to decide on amnesties; and to ratify or to abrogate international treaties. As in other socialist states, the assembly's real function is to endorse the legislative and administrative measures initiated by the Council of State and by the Council of Ministers. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The National Assembly meets twice a year and may hold additional sessions if needed. During the periods between its sessions, legislative functions are handled by the Council of State. Bills are introduced by the Council of State, the Council of Ministers, the assembly's several commissions (legislative committees), and heads of other organizations. Individual deputies are not entitled to introduce bills. *

Once bills, state plans and budgets, and other measures are introduced, they are studied first by the assembly's commissions, which deal with legislation, economic planning, budgetary matters, and cultural and social affairs. Then they go to the assembly for adoption. Ordinary bills are passed by a simple majority (by a show of hands). Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority. The Council of State must promulgate an adopted bill within thirty days of its passage. Another function of the assembly is to oversee the affairs of the Council of Ministers, which functions as the cabinet. Assembly members may make inquiries of cabinet officials, but they are not entitled to call for votes of confidence in the cabinet. Conversely, the Council of Ministers is not empowered to dissolve the National Assembly. *

Cambodian Head of Government and Executive Branch

The Prime Minister of Cambodia is a representative from the ruling party of the National Assembly. He or she is head of the party that holds the most seats in the legislature is appointed by the King on the recommendation of the President and Vice Presidents of the National Assembly. In order for a person to become Prime Minister, he or she must first be given a vote of confidence by the National Assembly. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Prime Minister is officially the Head of Government in Cambodia. Upon entry into office, he or she appoints a Council of Ministers who are responsible to the Prime Minister. Officially, the Prime Minister's duties include chairing meetings of the Council of Ministers (Cambodia's version of a Cabinet) and appointing and leading a government. The Prime Minister and his government make up Cambodia's executive branch of government. +

The current Prime Minister is Cambodian People's Party (CPP) member Hun Sen. He has held this position since the criticized 1998 election, one year after the CPP staged a bloody coup in Phnom Penh to overthrow elected Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the FUNCINPEC party. +

In 2004, a controversial bill was passed that called for simultaneous election of the Prime Minister and the National Assembly President

The Prime Minister usually serves a five year term as do other members of the legislature. The current prime minister lives in the suburbs of Phnom Penh and is driven around in a Mercedes.

Cambodian Council of Ministers

The Council of Ministers (also called the Cabinet of Cambodia) is the primary organ of the executive branch of the Royal Cambodian Government. Apart from the prime minister (formally called chairman), the Council of Ministers has two deputy prime ministers (vice chairmen) and twenty ministers. The National Assembly elects the council's ministers for five-year terms. They are responsible collectively to the assembly. The prime minister must be a member of the assembly; other council members, however, need not be. The council's five-year term continues without hiatus until a new cabinet is formed after general elections. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The Council of Ministers meets weekly in an executive session, which is attended by the prime minister, the deputy prime ministers, and a chief of staff who is called the Minister in Charge of the Office of the Council of Ministers. The executive group prepares an agenda for deliberation and adoption by the council's monthly plenary session. (A secretary general of the Council of Ministers provides administrative support for the cabinet.) The executive group also addresses measures for implementing the plenary session's decisions, and it reviews and coordinates the work of government agencies at all levels. Decisions made in the executive sessions are "collective," whereas those in the plenary sessions are by a majority. Representatives of organizations, to which all citizens may belong, may be invited to attend plenary sessions of the council "when [it is] discussing important issues." These representatives may express their views but they are not allowed to vote. *

Government ministries are in charge of agriculture; communications, transport, and posts; education; finance; foreign affairs; health; home and foreign trade; industry; information and culture; interior; justice; national defense; planning; and social affairs and invalids. The Office of the Council of Ministers serves as the administrative nerve center of the government. Directed by its cabinet-rank minister, this office is supposed "to prepare, facilitate, coordinate, unify, and guide all activities of individual ministries and localities." Fiscal inspection of public institutions is the responsibility of the State Affairs Inspectorate, which has branch offices in all provinces. *

Cambodian Legislature

Legislature: the National Assembly is a parliament with 123 seats. On average around 100 to 110 members are present to vote on important bills. There is a Senate but it has much less power than the parliament. Still it has to rubber stamp many bills to get them passed.

The legislative branch of the Cambodian government is made up of a bicameral parliament. The National Assembly (Radhsaphea) has 123 members, elected for a five-year term by proportional representation. The Senate (Protsaphea) has 61 members. Two of these members are appointed by the King, two are elected by the lower house of the government, and the remaining fifty-seven are elected popularly by "functional constituencies." Members in this house serve a six-year term.[Source: Wikipedia +]

The official duty of the Parliament is to legislate and make laws. Bills passed by the Parliament are given to the King who gives the proposed bills Royal Assent. The King does not have veto power over bills passed by the National Assembly and thus, cannot withhold Royal Assent. The National Assembly also has the power to dismiss the Prime Minister and his government by a two-thirds vote of no confidence. +

The upper house of the Cambodian legislature is called the Senate. It consists of sixty-one members. Two of these members are appointed by the King, two are elected by the lower house of the government, and the remaining fifty-seven are elected popularly by electors from provincial and local governments, in a similar fashion to the Senate of France. Members in this house serve six-year terms. Prior to 2006, elections had last been held for the Senate in 1999. New elections were supposed to have occurred in 2004, but these elections were initially postponed. On January 22, 2006, 11,352 possible voters went to the poll and chose their candidates. This election was criticized by local monitoring non-governmental organizations as being undemocratic As of 2006, the Cambodian People's Party holds forty-three seats in the Senate, constituting a significant majority. The two other major parties holding seats in the Senate are the Funcinpec party (holding twelve seats) and the Sam Rainsy Party (holding two seats). +

The lower house of the legislature is called the National Assembly. It is made up of 123 members, elected by popular vote to serve a five-year term. Elections were last held for the National Assembly in July 2008. In order to vote in legislative elections, one must be at least eighteen years of age. However, in order to be elected to the Legislature, one must be at least twenty-five years of age. The National Assembly is led by a President and two Vice Presidents who are selected by Assembly members prior to each session. As of 2009, the Cambodian People's Party holds a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, controlling 90 out of the 123 seats. The Sam Rainsy Party holds 26 seats and other parties hold the other 7 seats. +

Elections in Cambodia

Parliamentary elections are held every five years. The first one was in 1993. The one after that was in 1998. There were also ones in 2003 and 2008. The last one was in 2003. Interim elections are held to elect about 1,600 village mayors.

There were 5.4 million eligible voters, and 11,000 polling sites and 1,900 counting stations used in Cambodian election in 2003. The 1998 election took one month to carry out. The 2003 election was carried out a little bit quicker. Still the counting took some time as ballots had to be collected from remote villages—sometimes by elephant.

Voter have their fingers stained with ink after they vote to prevent them from voting more than once. Monitors observe the sealing of the ballot boxes, which are kept with monitors overnight and counted, beginning the day after the election.

Cambodia's legislature is chosen through a national election. The Parliament of Cambodia has two chambers. The National Assembly of Cambodia (Radhsphea) has 123 members, each elected for a five-year term by proportional representation. The Senate (Pridhsphea) has 61 members, appointed by the king on recommendation of the parties in the National Assembly. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Since the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords ending decades of civil war and foreign occupation, and with the final elimination in 1998 of armed insurgency groups inside the country, five national elections have taken place in Cambodia in 1993, 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013. The first national elections were administered by United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) in July 1993, the first commune-level election was held in February 2002 and the Cambodian Senate was elected for the first time by the elected commune council officials in January 2006.

Election Irregularities and Violence in Cambodia

Election irregularities includes vote buying, barring opposition monitors from poling stations, miscounting opposition votes, and using monitors connected with a particularly party to count votes.

Violence, threats, visits in the middle of the night, and harassment by drunk armed men are also components of Cambodian campaigns and elections. One Cambodia man told the New York Times that a gunman told him, “If we lose you had better get out of here—otherwise we’ll kill you....Then we’ll take you to the field and turn you into fertilizer.”

In some places, thumb prints of voters have been collected by ruling party supporters with the understanding that their owners will be tracked down if they vote against the ruling party. There have been reports of people being forced to drink a glass of water with a bullet in it. The idea here is that the bullet will follow them if they don’t vote for Hun Sen. Voter intimidations is especially bad in remote areas beyond the reach of international observers.

About two dozen people were killed during the election in 1998. The figure was lower in 2003 but people were still afraid. In some villages, people that voted against Hun Sen’s party fled after the election out of fear being attacked by Hun Sen supporters.

See Elections Under History

Problems with Democracy in Cambodia

One Cambodian survivor of the Khmer Rouge told the New York Times" The United Nations planted the seed of democracy. But someone has to help fertilize it. Cambodian democracy is still a very fragile thing."

Problems that show the sorry stae of Cambodia democracy include the daylight murder of a newspaper editor and the injury of 50 people when a grenade was tossed into Buddhist temple filled with members of the political opposition. Tanks and troops have been placed in Phnom Penh to protect Hun Sen from enemies he calls "worms." Newspapers have been shut down and opposition parties have been outlawed.

One foreign resident in Phnom Penh told the Washington Post, "When you step back and look at it, the idea that little Cambodia with all its problems would suddenly become the most democratic country in Asia was totally unrealistic." After Cambodia’s first election in 1993 the corrupt bureaucracy and police force and military that existed after the election were the same ones in place before the election. This made reforms hard along with the fact that "no history of political pluralism, no understanding of judicial independence and no concept of civic administration” existed in Cambodia before that election.

Calls for More Democracy in Cambodia

"We need to be able to make a choice," Seb Saroth, a father of six who grows rice in Battambang province in the northwestern part of the country, told the Washington Post. "If we have democracy, it will make Cambodia a country that can save its culture," he said. [Source: Katie Nelson, Washington Post, July 27, 2008 <>]

"Cambodia needs a democratic system with real checks and balances," said Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. "As it is, if you have only one party with actual power, the opposition cannot play a good role, and that is bad for democracy and [the] future of Cambodia." <>

"Having multiple voices represented in the government makes a government more stable in the long run and attracts investors. I think pluralism is conducive to economic growth," said John Willis, resident country director for the International Republican Institute. "If you have more voices feeling like they are being heard, more people have a stake in the system being maintained." <>

With that in mind, Chhang Nin, a student, said he will vote for one of the 10 opposition parties. He lives in Mondulkiri, a rural northeastern province, where he attends high school and lives in a boardinghouse hours from his village. Fresh ideas could help his country "build big buildings; and for the children, provide enough education; and for the adults, provide more factories so they can make money," he said. But the older generations may keep this from happening, he said. "Some of the old people, they are afraid of having another war if the CPP doesn't win," Chhang Nin said. "But the election is a very important way to change the country, to move forward."

Village Democracy in Action in Cambodia

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times; “Leaving their crops and animals behind, 800 of Cambodia's poorest people gathered the other day in the shade of a blue tarpaulin in a village south of the capital and poured out a torrent of complaints and demands. The price of fuel, the poor education system, problems with health care, bribery at every turn — these grievances have found a new outlet in a series of independent forums that are challenging the control of information by an increasingly repressive government. But the subject that dominated all others in this meeting in the commune of Rokar Khnong was a passionate demand for free speech and democratic rights. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, January 30, 2006 ><]

“One man wept as he stood at the microphone. One shouted. One raised a cheer for democracy. An elderly woman with cropped white hair recited a poem in which she promised to die so that her country could live. "I love democracy," declared a farmer, who spoke boldly, but like the other participants did not give his name for fear of being arrested. "I stopped work on my harvest so I could come here and speak at a democratic forum. We want to exercise our right to free speech." ><

“Even the organizers said they were taken aback by the turnout and assertiveness of the villagers. The government has been cracking down on free speech and in recent months has arrested several human rights advocates. Among those arrested was Kem Sokha, who founded these independent forums in 2005. Since then, they have taken place more than 100 times, in every district of the country. And their impact has grown through taped broadcasts — some lasting four hours or more — on independent radio stations, which have also become targets of the crackdown. ><

“The outrage in Rokar Khnong suggests that the government will not have it easy if it tries to crush the democratic ideas that were introduced by the United Nations in the early 1990's as it sought to end decades of bloodshed. The concepts of human rights and free expression appear to have taken root, and if Mr. Kem Sokha's forums are an indicator, the fields and villages of Cambodia are restless with discontent. ><

"I have a question for the government," said an old woman wearing a checkered head cloth. "You talk about democracy, but how much right do the people of Cambodia have to speak out? If we speak out, will we be arrested like Kem Sokha?" Another woman seized the microphone. "I have lived through many wars, and I only have two relatives left alive," she said. "I am old now, and I want to see democracy before I die." Another followed: "I don't know how to speak," she said, "but I just want to send a message to Hun Sen. Stop sending people to jail for small crimes. You are abusing your power." Furthermore, she said, nobody can believe anything the government says. Referring to the government's official spokesman, she used a local expression: "You ask him cow, and he answers buffalo." ><

“Several speakers were angry enough to refer to the torments of the Khmer Rouge years,."In the Khmer Rouge time, my father was served soup and they asked him if it tasted good," one man said. " 'Tell the truth,' they said. And so he said it did not taste good, and they killed him. Now when we speak the truth, are we going to be jailed? Is Cambodia going back to the Communists again?" Another man, a former schoolteacher, noted that Mr. Kem Sokha had been arrested simply for having political slogans painted on a banner. "What about the Khmer Rouge, who killed millions of Cambodians 27 years ago?" he said. "Why haven't they been put on trial?" ><

“As with other forums, local leaders were invited to join a panel in front of the speakers. At Rokar Khnong, a deputy village chief and deputy district police chief were present. Ou Virak, a member of Mr. Kem Sokha's organization, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, was moderating in his absence and invited them to speak. "In a democratic forum, we want to hear opposing ideas, not just the people who support the forum," he said. Seng Toich, the police officer, stood up. "Some people focus all the time on individual rights and think that means we can do anything we want," he said. "But our rights have limitations. They cannot be used to harm others." Temples must limit the use of loudspeakers in order not to disturb the peace, he said. A motorcycle rider must obey traffic rules. A farmer cannot graze his animals in a public park. Speech that is too free can harm the reputations of others. ><

“A student rose to rebut him. "That is not what we are asking for, to break traffic rules or disturb the peace, but to exercise our democratic rights," he said. The meeting ended with a reading of the section of the Cambodian Constitution guaranteeing the rights of free speech and free assembly. Mr. Ou Virak, the moderator, said it was beginning to be more difficult to organize the forums because of new fears of retribution in the villages. As the day's meeting dispersed, he thanked the local officials for allowing it to be held. ><

Some Want the Return of the Khmer Rouge

The current government is so bad that some Cambodians have quietly expressed a desire for the return of the Khmer Rouge. One student told Philip Shenon of the New York Times, "In the Khmer Rouge time, they killed many people, but there was no corruption. And corruption is the most terrible problem that we have now."

Despite their savagery, the Khmer Rouge had a reputation of being nationalistic and honest. Another student told Shenon, "Corruption is destroying Cambodia, and I think maybe that is a much bigger danger than the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot may be bad, but some of the other Khmer Rouge leaders are not so bad."

Cambodia: A Torturous Road to Nation-building

On Cambodia’s struggle to become a well-round nation. Barbara Crossette wrote in the New York Times: “This poor and psychologically wounded country is a prime object lesson in the perilous, unending business of nation-building. In 1992-1993, the United Nations led a multimillion dollar effort to remake this Southeast Asian nation, which in barely two decades had been whipsawed into the American war in Indochina, brutalized by the Khmer Rouge and ground down and isolated by a Vietnamese occupation. Fifteen years later, the country is among the world's most badly governed and politically corrupt. The State Department's report summarized it concisely: "Corruption was considered endemic and extended throughout all segments of society, including the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government." It is made all the worse, the report added, by a "culture of impunity." [Source: Barbara Crossette, New York Times, March 21, 2008 ~]

“Corruption is not just money; it is a corrosive mentality that debases national life in a country still not sure of itself. It deters aid and investment except by people from predictable (mostly Asian) nations who don't care - or who benefit from pervasive graft. But in a broader sense, what corruption has done to Cambodia is create a culture of easy wealth and casual lawlessness, a sad example to young people born into a broken society that was stripped of its intellectual middle class and Buddhist leadership under the Khmer Rouge. ~

“The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a crafty and uncompromising leader who was able to corner political and military power in the 1990s, abetted by misguided UN decisions, has no coherent social policies. People in the countryside live perennially on the edge of hunger. The World Food Program is still feeding about 1.8 million of the country's 14 million people. Health services in rural areas are all but non-existent; unqualified midwives cause the maternal mortality rate to rank among the worst in Asia. ~

“The State Department noted in its current report that there do not appear to be any politically motivated killings or political prisoners in Cambodia. But the report does acknowledge, citing work by courageous Cambodian human rights groups, that abuses by the military and police, often in league with governing party officials, occur widely around the country. Journalists can attest to that. There is also vigilante justice in the absence of a judicial system that Cambodians can trust. The UN human rights office in Phnom Penh has documented brutal land seizures by the well connected that drive out thousands of poor farmers with no means of recourse. This is a major deterrent to rural development.” ~

Kem Sokha, Foreign Aid and the Drive for More Openness in Cambodia

Reporting from Samrong district, Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post: “ Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, addressed a throng of 1,000 villagers, nuns and monks who had gathered recently at an ancient Hindu temple here to cheer his release from jail. Many of them had put their thumbprints on a petition seeking his freedom. He thanked them, but he urged vigilance. "The situation is not that different from before," he said, the yellow ribbon on his safari suit symbolizing freedom of expression. "Don't be too happy." [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post Foreign Service, March 10, 2006 ^^]

“Kem Sokha was among the activists and opposition politicians who have been detained during the past year and then released in recent weeks as the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared to step back from its campaign to silence critics. Hun Sen's government was rewarded last week when foreign donors meeting in Phnom Penh, the capital, pledged to give Cambodia at least $600 million in aid this year, a 20 percent increase over last year. They said they were encouraged by economic progress and Hun Sen's conciliatory moves toward the political opposition, although they still were concerned about corruption. ^^

“Human rights groups contend that the boost in aid without stiff conditions sends the wrong signal to a government they say continues to harass activists and threatens journalists with prison even as it releases some imprisoned people. They say the government has failed to keep pledges to end illegal logging and prevent illegal land sales to officials and groups linked to the ruling party, prime issues among the rural poor who make up 80 percent of Cambodia's population. "This is a decade-old pattern: assurances by the government right before donor meetings, followed by a return to the old ways afterward," said Basil Fernando, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission. ^^

“Hun Sen has used his “power to silence critics. The government stripped opposition leader Sam Rainsy and two colleagues of parliamentary immunity. Sam Rainsy fled into exile and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in absentia for criminal defamation. One of his colleagues was accused of setting up an illegal army and sentenced to seven years. A radio journalist and a union leader were jailed on charges of defaming Hun Sen. Kem Sokha and a fellow human rights activist were jailed on defamation charges. A few days later, Kem Sokha's deputy was arrested and faces a similar charge. The U.N. human rights envoy for Cambodia said the country was on the brink of totalitarianism. Western editorials decried it as a dictatorship. Human Rights Watch compared it to Burma, which is ruled by a military junta. ^^

“Then Hun Sen appeared to reverse course. On Jan. 10, a human rights activist was released on bail. A week later, Kem Sokha and three others were freed. In February, Sam Rainsy's colleague was released. A few days later, with a pardon deal in hand, Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia. On Valentine's Day, Hun Sen called for the decriminalization of defamation. He has begun discussing with Sam Rainsy what the opposition figure has said are "solutions to national issues." ^^

In public forums around the country -- organized by the U.S.-funded Cambodian Center for Human Rights -- villagers have been airing concerns about corrupt officials, abuses of power and inadequate services. At a forum last month in Kampong Chhnang province, north of the capital, speaker after speaker complained about land confiscated by local officials or groups backed by local officials belonging to Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party.

Reforms Needed on the Cambodian Constitution

According to the Cambodian government: “Today, Cambodia's administrative machine is excessive. The Royal Government should take steps to reform and trim it. It should be a neutral and sound administration, which is capable to effectively serve the people. The rule of civil servants must be strictly applied. The training program to update the knowledge and skill of the employs must be spontaneously upgraded and maintained. The physical structure of provinces and its cities must be reviewed. The provincial administration autonomy should seriously considered. The management of provinces, districts, communes and villages should be properly carried out to rules and regulations. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia =]

“The judicial system and courts need to be entirely overhauled. By law, they ought to be independent, honest, and trustworthy. To succeed their quest, the corporations among the national institutions, such as the National Assembly, the Government, the Constitutional Council, the Council of Magistracy, and the court, should be overcome. Judges' salaries must be adequately raised. Especially, they judges in the Supreme Court must request their summons be properly recorded and executed. However, if there is a judge committing a violation, the Council of Magistracy should immediately reprimand him or her. =

“The corruption and power abuses, which obstruct the promotion and supports of the people's living conditions, ought to be stopped. The Cambodia's, the businessmen, and the investors must not be victimized by those exploitations. The Royal Government of Cambodia considers the fight against the corruption as its matter of priority. The Royal Government would set transparency in every work force. The anti-corruption institution would be soon formed. To ensure the effectiveness in the work force, the following measures would urgently be realized: 1) the creation of an effective anti-corruption law against the corrupt; 2) The creation of an agency to monitor and to fight corruption; 3) The wealth clearance decree; 4) The State estates control; 5) The encouragement of citizenry to participate in the corruption fight; and 6) The appropriation of pay raise for the civil servants in accordance to the national budget.

Cambodian Politics

In Report from a Stricken Land , Henry Kamm wrote: "The incompetence and venality of most of Cambodia's political class has been an unfortunate constant." What appears to be going on the surface is often very different from what is going on in reality behind the scenes. And what goes on behind the scenes is often orchestrated, controlled and manipulated by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

One political analyst told AFP. “Cambodia is a very conservative country. Like all of traumatized societies they don’t want anything that’s big, frightening or scarey to happen. They want roads and cheap electricity.” In many ways the political world in Cambodia has been already been turned on its head and upside down: former Communist are capitalists and royalists are populists.

Rival politicians have a deep loathing for one another. Seth Mydans of the New York Times wrote that Cambodia “is a nation where force and fancy trump the formal structure of government and the written rule of the game.” Cambodians like to say: “The law is on the mouth.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the rules of civil society began taking hold and a number of special interest groups—involved in human rights, the environment, women’s rights, legal affairs and land issues—that began to force those in powers to watch their step.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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