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Geopolitics

Is Cambodia Slipping Back To Rogue State Status?

A new law designed to crack down on NGOs is one of several signs that Cambodia is edging back toward authoritarianism nearly two decades after the UN stepped in following brutal civil wars. The international community, by turning a blind eye to government

Rural residents in Siem Raep Province, Cambodia
Rural residents in Siem Raep Province, Cambodia
Angélique Mounier-Kuhn

Is Cambodia about to become an autocratic and corrupted state like the Arab regimes whose governments have recently faced popular uprisings? The question is suddenly very real in the face of increasing concerns about Cambodia's human rights record.

"The UN's goal was to bring democracy, but the country is now about to become a totalitarian state," says an anonymous representative for a human rights NGO. When the UN organized elections in Cambodia in 1993 after a long and cruel civil war, the experience was described as a historical success. Democracy returned to a country long subjected to a series of dictatorships. A vibrant civilian society was developing in a country that suddenly had a younger look and feel.

Cambodia seemed to be heading in a positive direction, even as its two-headed government – led by Prince Ranariddh, who won the election, and the "second Prime Minister," Mr. Hun Sen – showed signs that the old authoritarian habits were holding on. Almost 20 years later, the official report is disappointing. The country has been progressively destroyed, and the democratic progress erased.

A very rich and arrogant elite has emerged, crowded around Hu Sen and his family. Hu Sen ousted Ranariddh from power after a takeover in 1997. Then, he won the 1998, 2003 and 2008 elections. The elite lives off its privileges and its lofty titles. "It can be described as a rogue state, but you can't say it out loud," says another local observer.

The cornerstone of this autocratic system is a judiciary system that is totally controlled by the government. "The courts are so pathetic they don't even deserve to be called a judiciary system. They belong to the Cambodian People's Party (Prime Minister Hu Sen's party). It is almost impossible to win a trial if you don't have the Party on your side," says Philip Robertson, who covers Cambodia for Human Rights Watch, an international human's rights organisation.

The issue of forced expropriations of peasant farms is the best example of inequality before the law. After the era of the Khmer rouge (the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979), lands were controlled depending on varying circumstances. In 2001, a law gave ownership rights to people – often peasants – who actively used a given plot for agricultural purposes. But this law has not prevented private firms from using the army to chase peasants away from their lands to develop rubber or sugar cane plantations.

Staggering conflicts

"When the victims lay charges against a powerful person, judges don't pay attention. But when private firms complain, judges and prosecutors are quick to react," says a Cambodian activist.

Conflicts of interests can sometimes be staggering. For instance, one senator who is a prime minister's close friend wins a plot of land thanks to the army's support, then takes advantage of a law voted by the Lower House of Parliament that guarantees financial help to the project.

Last May, Christophe Peschoux, a representative in Cambodia for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had to flee Cambodia after the prime minister asked governmental organizations not to cooperate with him. What mistake did he make?

"He understood the situation very well. Like his predecessors, he was criticized and insulted by Hu Jen because he spoke out about what was really going on," said Son Soubert, a former member of the Constitutional Council.

A new government law about supervision of local and international NGOs will allow the government to strictly control their activities. Under the law, authorities can check NGO accounts and even refuse them operating licences.

Many Cambodian human rights activists think the international community is to blame for the breakdown of the legally constituted state. Half the Cambodian budget comes from donations and loans from foreign countries, they point out. The European Union, furthermore, imports sugar cane produced on plantations that in some cases were expropriated from peasants under questionable circumstances.

"These donations may reinforce the status quo," says Ou Virak, director of a group called the Cambodian Coordination for Human Rights. "The donating countries shouldn't keep financing the state's missions just because Cambodia is said to be a failed state."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Amber de Bruin

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