Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Monday, March 07, 2005

Cambodia's continuing crisis

The Straits Times, Singapore
March 5, 2005

Cambodia's continuing crisis

By Verghese Mathews
For The Straits Times

IF THERE is one lesson neighbours in the region should learn from contemporary Cambodia, it is to never ever end up as a donor-funded country. Should some outrageous fortune result in that happening, one should expect to see within that country a collective nationalistic fervour bent on quickly redressing the situation.

This is unfortunately not so in Phnom Penh where once again political infighting is preoccupying decision-makers instead of nation-building and working towards self-reliance.

Politicking, it would appear, is in the blood, bones, hair and finger nails of Cambodian politicians who practise it with great enthusiasm and blatant impunity.

The melodrama is at the expense of the poor, the weak and the marginalised who are becoming increasingly frustrated.

Worse, there is also a tiresome pattern of the political discord in Phnom Penh invariably becoming externalised, resulting in strident condemnation of the government by the usual 'democratic' sources - and, as happened not too long ago, a shrill call for a 'regime change'.

The latest upping of the political ante is essentially the continuation of inter- and intra-political party intrigues that have been going on since the last general election in July 2003 - obscenely delaying for more than a year the eventual coalition government between the dominant Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the royalist Funcinpec party (FCP).

Tension moved up several notches on Feb 3 when the Cambodian National Assembly voted to remove the parliamentary immunity of Mr Sam Rainsy and two other members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) so the courts could charge them with defamation. Prime Minister Hun Sen and FCP president Prince Norodom Ranarridh, who had earlier lodged the defamation charges, argued that no parliamentarian should be allowed to malign others under cover of parliamentary immunity.

Mr Rainsy 'fled' the country the same day. He had similarly fled or sought refuge at some embassy on previous occasions.

He was soon in Washington, Brussels and Paris to externalise the problem. Here, he must be given credit - he has used his excellent outreach to identify powerful people and groups that are against Mr Hun Sen and the CPP.

Mr Rainsy scored on Feb 17 when long-time Hun Sen critic, US Senator Mitch McConnell, and Senator Sam Brownback tabled Resolution 65 at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee calling on the Cambodian National Assembly to reverse its decision to strip the three SRP members' parliamentary immunity.

It also urged donor countries to impose 'appropriate sanctions' against the Cambodian government and assembly until the decision was reversed.

The resolution further demanded that US visas not be issued to any parliamentarian who had voted in favour of the decision and all his family members.

For good measure, the resolution urged the State Department, the United Nations Secretary-General, international financial institutions and 'democrats all around the world to continue publicly to condemn the actions of the Cambodian Assembly'.

It is interesting that international financial institutions are specifically mentioned. The SRP has been highly critical of them for releasing funds to the Cambodian government for various development programmes.

Mr Rainsy also appeared on the BBC's Hardtalk. To criticisms from his detractors that he did not fare too well and was on the defensive, the SRP retorted that the interviewer, Zeinab Badawi, was overly aggressive and 'would have made an excellent interrogator at a concentration camp'!

It is now a month since Mr Rainsy has been away on his campaign. But it is unlikely that the international community will be persuaded to impose sanctions or blanket travel restrictions - there are those who are not taken in by the SRP's choreographed campaign or who argue that Mr Rainsy is no less guilty than those he has accused of authoritarian tendencies and of undermining the country's democratic credentials.

While Mr Rainsy is right that much more needs to be done - fighting endemic corruption, reforming the judiciary, promoting financial and administrative transparency, and ensuring good governance - it is important to view these in perspective.

For a post-conflict country, Cambodia has done well and it is a fair comment that for Cambodia, every year since the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991 has been better than the preceding one. In the latest Index of Economic Freedom published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, Cambodia is ranked 63 out of more than 155. Cambodia was termed 'mostly free', higher than Thailand in the same category at 71, while Vietnam at 137 was 'mostly unfree' and Laos at 150 was 'repressed'.

Mr Rainsy knows that sooner or later he has to return to Phnom Penh and is now making arrangements. His latest stand is that he will return to Cambodia as soon as he receives a 'legitimate court summons with specific charges'. He has also written to the King to help resolve the crisis and ensure that the court's decisions are more consistent and equitable.

Some think Mr Rainsy overplayed his hand this time but his supporters at home remain mostly faithful and that is his plus factor.

The writer, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

SUBMITTED BY: Verghese Mathews Email: math...@iseas.edu.sg Sun, 6 Mar 2005

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