Freedom in the World
In July 2010, the international tribunal trying former leaders of the Khmer Rouge announced its first judgment, but also faced criticism over its refusal to expand the number of suspects currently indicted. Critics of the government continued to face legal harassment, while the government used a dispute with Thailand over a border temple to boost nationalism and consolidate the power of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family.Both the United States and China sought to increase their ties to Cambodia during the year, with the United States holding joint military exercises despite concerns about human rights abuses committed by the Cambodian armed forces.
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 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 dominated politics, 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. Hun Sen’s divide-and-rule tactics have succeeded in fracturing and weakening the opposition.
In 1997, Hun Sen used his control of the security forces to coerce the royalist party, known as Funcinpec, to share power even though Funcinpec won the largest number of seats in the first parliamentary election held in 1993. Hun Sen later ousted the leader of Funcinpec in a bloody coup in 1997.
The 2003 parliamentary elections were deeply flawed and marred by violence and voter intimidation by the CPP. Nevertheless, the CPP failed to obtain the two-thirds majority required to form a government. A coalition government with Funcinpec was negotiated but quickly broke down. Following the formation of a new CPP-Funcinpec coalition in 2004, Hun Sen turned to quieting opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s attacks on government corruption and abuse. The National Assembly stripped him and several other Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) legislators of their parliamentary immunity in 2005. After fleeing Cambodia to escape arrest, Rainsy was found guilty in absentia of defaming Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen. However, under pressure from international donors, Hun Sen negotiated a settlement: Rainsy would receive a royal pardon in exchange for promising to recant his allegations and issue a public apology to Hun Sen. Rainsy returned to Cambodia in 2006 after fulfilling the terms. The new alliance with Rainsy further strengthened Hun Sen and the CPP’s grip on power.
In the 2008 elections, the CPP took 90 of 123 parliamentary seats, and Hun Sen was reelected as prime minister. The SRP took 26 seats, while Funcinpec took only 2. Two new parties, the Human Rights Party and the Norodom Ranariddh Party, won 3 and 2 seats, respectively. Opposition parties rejected the results, citing political intimidation and violence. Among other irregularities, they alleged that the National Election Committee worked with pro-CPP local authorities to delete potential opposition supporters from the voter rolls. With the opposition divided and unproven in the eyes of the voters, and the country enjoying relative political stability and sustained high economic growth, the CPP has started to command a measure of popular credibility despite public frustration with widespread corruption and other problems.
The launch of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia to try former KR officials for genocide and other crimes against humanity was delayed for years by bureaucratic and funding obstacles following its establishment in 2007. At the end of 2008, five former high-level KR leaders were charged, including the former chief of the Tuol Sleng prison Kang Kek Ieu (also known as Duch). KR mastermind Pol Pot died before he could be brought to trial. In July 2010, Duch was found guilty of war crimes and was sentenced to 35 years in prison, reduced to 19 years given time already served. The judgment angered some KR survivors who argued that the sentence was too lenient. Moreover, while the international judges on the court have pressured the tribunal to try more than the handful of high-ranking suspects currently indicted, they have been rebuffed by the Cambodian judges on the court. Some critics suggest that Hun Sen—a former low-level KR officer before he defected to the Vietnamese side—has pushed the three Cambodians on the five-judge tribunal to refuse. Hun Sen allegedly does not want the tribunal to delve too deeply into the past or dent the climate of impunity for the powerful in Cambodia.
Throughout 2010, critics of the government continued to face legal harassment, leaving the country with few alternatives to the rule of Hun Sen. In January, Rainsy was sentenced in absentia for destroying public property and racial incitement in a trial that failed to meet international standards. Rainsy, who was in self-imposed exile abroad at year’s end, faces a twelve-year prison sentence for the January sentence as well as a series of other charges if he returns to Cambodia. Separately, in August, an employee from one of Cambodia’s leading rights organizations, LICADHO, was sentenced in a flawed legal process to two yearsin prison on “disinformation” charges. Meanwhile, the government used the increasing controversy over a disputed border temple 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.
China continued to expand its influence in Cambodia in 2010. In January, Beijing gave the country some $850 million in new aid projects after Cambodian authorities forcibly deported 20 Uighur asylum-seekers back to China in December 2009. UN officials and other human rights groups had warned that the Uighurs could face torture or other mistreatment in China for alleged involvement in fomenting unrest; their fate in China remained unknown at the end of 2010.In March, Cambodia passed new laws on asylum-seekers, which were criticized by human rights groups for failing to meet the dictates of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
In 2010, the United States also improved its ties to Cambodia, in part to combat China’s increasing presence in the country. The United States had withdrawn a token amount of aid to protest the Uighur deportations in 2009, but in July 2010, the Pentagon launched “Angkor Sentinel” multinational peacekeeping exercises in both Phnom Penh and at a Pentagon-funded training center in Kompong Speu province. Human rights groups charged that the Cambodian military units normally housed at these bases and those included in the Angkor Sentinel exercises have been involved in illegal land seizures, political violence, and torture, among other abuses.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
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 majority 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 parliamentarians and commune councils. 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 local and provincial government officials, gives it an advantage over the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, 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. A March 2010 anticorruption law established an Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) that will require as many as 100,000 public officials to disclose their assets to investigators. However, many groups maintain that the new ACU lacks independence and have raised concerns about certain provisions of the law, including one that may used to bring defamation charges against those who register complaints that are found to be erroneous.
The government does not fully respect freedom of speech. Media controls are largely focused on local broadcast outlets. There are many newspapers and private television and radio stations, including several owned and operated by the CPP and opposition parties, though processes for granting and renewing radio and television licenses remain opaque. There are no restrictions on privately owned satellite dishes receiving foreign broadcasts. Print journalists are somewhat freer to criticize the government, but the print media reach only about 10 percent of the population. The government has increasingly used lawsuits and criminal prosecution as means of intimidation, though a judge acquitted a prominent reporter for Radio Free Asia’s Khmer-language service of defamation and disinformation charges in February 2010. Imprisonment was eliminated as a penalty for defamation in 2006, but 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 new penal code that came into effect in December 2010 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, but 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 in the broader region 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.
Freedoms of association and assembly are respected by the government to a certain degree, though the authorities’ tolerance for these freedoms 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 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 and break up demonstrations. In June 2010, representatives of communities affected by land disputes marched to Phnom Penh, though military police prevented them from presenting Prime Minister Hun Sen with a petition. In November, Phnom Penh Municipality inaugurated “Freedom Park,” in accordance with the 2009 Law on Peaceful Demonstrations, which calls on the capital and each province to establish specific areas for public demonstrations. The government hailed Freedom Park as a mechanism for balancing freedoms of expression and assembly with public order. However, rights groups raised suspicions, due to the park’s considerable distance from government buildings, government discretion in granting approvals for park gatherings, and a limit of 200 people per demonstration, among other restrictions. Within weeks after the park’s inauguration ceremony, police turned back a group of demonstrators who planned to use the park to screen a documentary about the murder of a prominent labor leader.
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. Wages have not kept up with rising costs of living, and the global economic slowdown exacerbated the hardships of low-income workers. However, the garment industry has made several well-known compacts with international companies ensuring the fair treatment of workers. In September 2010, approximately 200,000 garment and footwear industry workers staged strikes in the capital and elsewhere, demanding significant wage increases. Although the demands were not met, strikes came to an end after several days. Hundreds of workers were either dismissed or temporarily suspended from their jobs following their participation in the strikes, yet legal proceedings regarding the legitimacy of the strikes and the response that followed remained ongoing at year’s end.
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. 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. 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. In 2010, several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, highlighted the deteriorating climate for sex workers in Cambodia, who face arrest, abuse, and even rape by police. Women and girls are trafficked inside and outside of Cambodia for prostitution, and the sex trade has fueled the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Cambodia received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s consolidation of control over all aspects of the electoral process, its increased intimidation of civil society, and its apparent influence over the tribunal trying former members of the Khmer Rouge.