Cambodian democracy’s uneven road

A commentary in the Cambodian Daily, 16 May 2012, caught my eye. It opened with a quote from a 59-year old Yem Cheak: “I don’t want my children involved in politics because it makes them waste their time for study and business.”

He sounded like a typical Singaporean parent.

Other points made in the article sounded familiar too, this one for example: “Those youth who do advocate for political involvement certainly exist – but are a small bunch.”

Singapore has often been cited as pernicious example in our region. Our record of achieving steady GDP growth with an authoritarian government and constricted democracy is one that politicians in other countries find convenient to point to when they lose patience with their opponents. That political apathy grows as a result – and for the same reason of self-preservation – may not be a coincidence. So, in Cambodia recently for Pride Week, I squeezed out a bit of free time to interview two activists about the state of Cambodian democracy. Are there more parallels with Singapore?

That Cambodia’s economy has been on a healthy upward trend is hard to argue against. As you can see from this graph, GDP growth has been between 5 and 13 percent per annum from 1994 to 2010 with the exception of 2009, when it was affected by the Great Recession like other countries. The country remains relatively poor, with GDP per capita only around US$900. But this should be seen in the context of a country that suffered conflict and economic suicide through the 1970s and instability up to the mid-1990s.

Hun Sen has been Prime Minister since 1985 during a time when his government was widely seen as puppets of the invading Vietnamese. From 1993 to 1997, he had to share power with Norodom Ranariddh, whose Funcinpec Party actually outpolled Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) with 43% : 38% vote share at the 1993 polls held under the auspices of the United Nations. In July 1997, Hun Sen launched a putsch to seize full power, and he has been the sole prime minister since. Altogether, he has been prime minister for 27 years, nearly as long as Lee Kuan Yew’s 31 years.

At the 1998 general election, the CPP managed to win a slight majority of National Assembly seats (64 out of 122), and in the most recent election, held in 2008, it secured 90 out of 123 seats with 58% of the vote.

“The result more or less represented the will of the people,” said Koul Panha, Executive Director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Confrel).

Nevertheless, there are concerns.

“One important issue is a misuse of state resources for political party purposes,” he pointed out. Comfrel has a 25-page list of incident reports, including many instances of senior civil servants being seen attending CPP meetings and giving gifts to people alongside CPP cadres. Senior police and military personnel have also been involved in party activities.

“Civil servants, police and army leaders organise meetings [and] gather numbers to attend them,” Koul Panha (pic at right) said. This is in addition to the use of state equipment and buildings by the ruling party.

Then there is the question of fair access to media for opposition parties. “There are about eleven TV companies, but all of them are allied with the government,” he informed me. Almost all radio is government-linked as well. TV and radio are the main means of communication in Cambodia.

Changing the topic slightly, I asked him if Cambodians had faith in the secrecy of the vote. “About 90 percent would believe that their vote is secret,” he said. However, it’s not as simple as that. Votes are counted in smallish pools of 700 or 800, and locally. While on the one hand this practice can help ensure the integrity of the poll, on the other hand, it can reveal which neighbourhoods or villages voted strongly for the opposition.

Businessmen, for example, “fear a penalty for voting against the government,” he said. “Company tax can depend a lot on the tax officer, and licences can be hard to obtain.”

His top concern at the moment, however, is the integrity of the voter roll. By Comfrel’s estimate, “about 17% of the names are inaccurate,” he said. “That means nearly 1.5 million names.”

Comfrel was preparing to monitor the upcoming commune elections as I visited them. Deploying about 5,000 people, their monitors will check the secrecy of the polling booths and the ballot papers. Among many other tasks, they will also go into counting centres to ensure that ballot boxes have not been tampered with and that the total vote count tallies with the voter roll.

And that was when I said to myself: This puts Singapore to shame. First of all, we don’t have an election watch group as large and well-resourced as Comfrel, secondly, a neutral, non-government body like that will not be allowed into polling and counting stations here – as far as I know.

* * * * *

An electoral exercise, however well conducted, does not make a democracy. Many other considerations must apply, such as respect for human rights, access to information and rule of law, before democracy has vitality.

Pa Ngoun Teang (left) is in the thick of that struggle. He runs Voice of Democracy, a radio station that broadcasts 16.5 hours a day.

About half those hours are devoted to news and social programming, he told me, with the rest filled with music and entertainment. “The chief focus of our programs is on human rights.” But it is no easy path to take, because “the government has a perception that anyone talking about about human rights is the opposition.

“They put us in the same basket as opposition parties.”

What are the major human rights shortfalls? I asked him.

He named four: Right to public information, land grabbing, rule of law and social justice. That said, the issues are linked. “The government always hide,” he said.  “There is no accountability.”

For example, an environmental activist was killed just recently, on 26 April 2012, under highly suspicious circumstances. Chut Wutty was in the Koh Kong area, where he had established  local patrols to monitor illegal logging, and was leading a group of journalists looking into this issue. He and local villagers are fighting to save the Prey Lang forest, Southeast Asia’s last remaining intact lowland evergreen forest with rich biodiversity.

Illegal logging is widely considered to benefit what Edward Zwick, writing in the Huffington Post, called a “kleptocratic elite ransacking the country’s natural resources for personal gain.”

Cambodia Daily reporters who had been in the area when the killing occurred were detained and had their cameras confiscated.

Officials were quick to claim that Chut was killed by a military policeman named In Rattana, who turned his AK-47 rifle on himself after killing the activist, a claim that makes no sense. Moreover, the policeman committed suicide by shooting himself not once, but twice with what is a rather long weapon. However, his body has been cremated, making further forensic tests impossible. In Rattana’s family is also dissatisfied by the murder-suicide story.

Following the outcry however, the government has pledged to “find the real case”.

Related to environmental issues is that of land grabbing. Partly, the problem stems from the confiscations of the Khmer Rouge period in the mid 1970s. “After that period, land was distributed to ‘solidarity groups’ , which then redistributed it to families,” said Pa Ngoun Teang. However, it was mostly verbal.

Also, “the government did nothing to educate the people” about the provision that after using a piece of land for more than 25 years without any contesting claim, a family could file for formal title. As a result, few people know about this and now all sorts of land grabs are occurring. “It’s all because of corruption,” he explained.

The problem is compounded by weakness in the rule of law. Access to justice and slowness in hearing cases, makes it difficult for ordinary people to secure their rights.

Inequality between rich and poor is growing strongly. “The poor don’t even have the means to get economic opportunities,” he said.

How so?  For example, whereas “by law, school is free and every Cambodian child should finish a nine-year school program, in practice, school is not free, when you think in terms of corruption.” By that, he meant that teachers and headmasters find ways to supplement their income by making parents pay for this and that.

As for healthcare, “the quality is poor,” he said. “Some people die because of bargaining; the doctor ask patients to pay money first.”

Pa Ngoun Teang felt that an unequal playing field worsened inequality. Echoing what Koul Panha had earlier mentioned, Teang said, “companies with good connections and relationships with the government can import products and only pay a small tax. If you pay all the tax and import duties you are supposed to pay, you cannot compete. You will go out of business.”

A lot of the big companies are owned by government or people related to it. “They enjoy advantages, like parking space and reliable electricity supply.”

Has he himself been at the receiving end of the government’s intolerance of dissent? I asked.

“In 2006, I was arrested and detained for two weeks,” he said. What happened was that in the run-up to International Human Rights Day in December 2005, his organisation invited people to write in and express themselves on the topic. A huge banner containing these inputs was strung up at a sports stadium where several non-government organisations were holding an event to mark the occasion.

“A government spy in civilian clothes said that someone had written to say Hun Sen was corrupt and had betrayed the nation. And I was charged with defamation of the prime minister.”

However, after an outcry, he was released from pre-trial detention after two weeks. He didn’t have to pay bail and the case has not come to the courts.

“Then last year I received letters from government officials threatening me about my talking on radio about several things. One was about the stampede in November 2010 when almost 1,000 people died or were injured. Another was about the responsibility of Thai and Cambodian prime ministers over the fighting on the border.

“The officials called and sent me letters demanding that I ‘clarify’. To compromise, I invited them to a roundtable debate on my station, but they didn’t reply.”

Pa Ngoun Teang has nonetheless to strike a balance between his passion and his concern for his wife and young children. But why should he have to face such a  dilemma? “In this [political] culture, the government force people to take risk.”

He can understand if others might not want to take the risk, but in order to provide leadership for his 42 employees, he feels he himself has to.  “I always say, no risk, no change.”

2 Responses to “Cambodian democracy’s uneven road”


  1. 1 Saycheese 22 May 2012 at 12:51

    If the Cambodians have indefinite detention without trial, where will people like Pa Ngoun Teang be? Of course the Cambodians kleptocrats can just finish him off with a bullet or two, if he is really intolerable.

  2. 2 reservist_cpl 28 May 2012 at 14:51

    It does seem to be more hopeful than Singapore’s early days though. A bumpy road to a developed democratic nation, but less fraught with things like indefinite detention.


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