Cambodia is not an electoral democracy. The current constitution was promulgated in 1993 by the king, who serves as head of state. The monarchy remains highly revered as a symbol of national unity. Prince Norodom Sihamoni, who has lived abroad for much of his life, succeeded his father, King Norodom Sihanouk, in 2004 after the latter abdicated for health reasons.
The prime minister and cabinet must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the 123-seat National Assembly. Assembly members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. The upper house of the bicameral parliament, the Senate, has 61 members, of whom 2 are appointed by the king, 2 are elected by the National Assembly, and 57 are chosen by functional constituencies. Senators serve five-year terms. Voting is tied to a citizen’s permanent resident status in a village, township, or urban district, and this status cannot be changed easily. The CPP’s strong influence in rural areas, with its presence of party members and control of government officials, gives it an advantage over the opposition SRP, which finds support mainly in urban centers.
Corruption and abuse of power are serious problems that hinder 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, and real estate, these enterprises frequently involve land grabs by powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers. Cambodia was ranked 158 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government does not fully respect freedom of speech. Media controls are largely focused on local broadcast outlets, which are the primary source of information for most Cambodians. There are many newspapers and private television and radio stations, including several owned and operated by the CPP and opposition parties. There are no restrictions on privately owned satellite dishes receiving foreign broadcasts. Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize government policies and senior officials, but the print media reach only about 10 percent of the population. Moreover, critical journalists are subject to lawsuits and criminal prosecution. A new penal code passed in October 2009 confirmed defamation as a criminal offense and contained language allowing for liberal interpretation of defamation. Although imprisonment was eliminated as a penalty for defamation in 2006, it can be imposed for spreading false information or insulting public officials. Journalists also remain vulnerable to intimidation and violence, which are rarely punished. A journalists’ association claims that at least 10 media workers have been killed by government agents over the past two years, and that there have been no arrests or charges in their cases. The internet is fairly free of government control, but access is largely limited to urban centers. Mobile telephone use, though spreading, is still low because of cost and infrastructure constraints. The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists and can generally practice their faith freely, but discrimination against ethnic Cham Muslims is widespread. Terrorist attacks by Islamist militants in the broader region in recent years have raised new suspicions about Muslims. The government generally respects academic freedom, although criticism of the state is not tolerated.
Freedoms of association and assembly are respected by the government to a certain degree because of pressure and scrutiny by international donors. 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 generally face less harassment from the state. Public gatherings, protests, and marches occur and are rarely violent. However, the government occasionally uses police and other forces to intimidate participants. Democracy advocates fear that the new penal code, which limits protests to fewer than 20 participants, will allow the government to further restrict freedoms of assembly and speech. The government also appears keen to limit the influence of civil society groups. In 2008, the government proposed a new local associations and nongovernmental organizations law that would require international funds to be channeled through government bodies. The proposed law also imposes complex regulatory requirements on groups and bans activities deemed too political. Toward the end of 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to push for its passage by the parliament.
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. Labor conditions and workers’ ability to hold public protests and bargain collectively reportedly worsened in 2009. Wages have not kept up with rising costs of living, and the global economic slowdown exacerbated the hardships of low-income workers.
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. Abuse by law enforcement officers, including illegal detention and the torture of suspects, is common. Delays in the judicial process and corruption allow many suspects to escape prosecution. Jails are seriously overcrowded, and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care. Police, soldiers, and government officials are widely believed to tolerate, or 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. The government generally respects this right, but there have been reports of authorities restricting travel for opposition politicians, particularly during election campaigns. 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, 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 sex trade has fueled the spread of HIV/AIDS. A 2008 law against human trafficking imposes tougher penalties, but enforcement is said to be weak.