Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cambodia's Dysfunctional Democracy

March 26, 2008
UPI Asia Online

Column: Rule by Fear

HONG KONG, China - Cambodia is bound to a set of obligations under the international agreements that were concluded in 1991 to end the war in the country. Cambodia has undertaken, among other things, to adopt democracy, to observe and respect human rights and to be governed by the rule of law.

The country's Constitution, which emanates from a U.N.-organized constituent election in 1993, incorporates all of its international obligations and provides for all basic institutions for a parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. It is a constitutional monarchy with a separation of powers. It has an independent and impartial judiciary whose duty is to protect the rights and freedoms of its citizens.

Cambodia has since then abandoned communism, embraced a market economy and become a more open society. However, communist legacies have stalled the creation of institutions for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law worthy of their names and their functioning. The government is not accountable to the National Assembly, for example, when the prime minister and other government ministers flout their constitutional duties and spurn the assembly's summons to answer its questions.

The government and, through it, the prime minister, currently Hun Sen, have effective control over all state institutions, including the king, the Constitutional Council, the National Assembly and the judiciary. Hun Sen's power is all the stronger when he has effective control of his ruling party, the Cambodian People's Party, a former communist party whose discipline has remained as strict as ever.

Party members are appointed to all positions of responsibility in all state institutions -- the army, the security forces, the civil service, the National Election Committee, and even the legal profession. Hun Sen and the CPP have the support of rich businessmen through cronyism, and he and other leading CPP members have built up strong personal relationships among themselves and rich businessmen through the marriages of their children or through business connections.

The dysfunctional institutions for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, and the concomitant concentration of power, that have been created by this phenomenon have led to an abuse of power and position, corruption, inequality before the law and impunity for the rich and powerful.

Many crimes throughout the years, especially the notorious ones in which top officials are widely known to have been involved, have remained uninvestigated. Almost all such perpetrators have escaped punishment for their crimes. These notorious crimes include, for example, the killing and injuring of peaceful demonstrators in 1997, the killing of some 40 senior rival party members in a coup a few months later, the killing of a famous actress in 1999, labor union leaders in 2004 and 2007 and evictees in 2007 and the attempted murder of female singers in 2003 and 2007.

Many powerful and rich people have abused their power and position and are known to have been involved in land-grabbing, which is a major issue that has put at least 150,000 people at risk of being evicted, according to a survey. Hun Sen has publicly acknowledged that land-grabbers are officials of his ruling party and people in power. In recent years, land-grabbers have used members of the security forces to forcibly evict people from their homes and lands, beating them, destroying their properties and arresting them if they resist. According to one NGO, at least 5,585 families in 2007 were evicted, and nearly 150 people were arrested, one-third of whom are still in prison in 2008.

In February 2008, the Cambodia national police commissioner allegedly ordered the punishment of a police officer who refused to follow an order to cede his land to a senior government minister in a land dispute. This police officer was allegedly illegally arrested, tortured and denied medical treatment.

In the same month, the son of an advisor to a top leader of the country shot at a metal frame builder whose nephew had a brawl with that advisor's other son, but the bullet missed the builder. The builder's nephew was arrested, yet both of the advisor's sons were not. The advisor used his position to arrange with the police and the court for an out-of-court settlement and for the dropping of all charges against his sons, which is illegal under Cambodian law.

Earlier in January the bodyguards of a powerful person were caught on camera grabbing and assaulting the driver of a truck who failed to stop in time to make way for the car of their boss to drive through a busy section of a national highway on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Yet no investigation has been reported, although the story with the photo of the assault has been published in a leading national newspaper.

Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, a French revolutionary leader in the 18th century, said that France had too many laws but too few institutions and that despotism would not decline until there were more institutions. Cambodia seems to have sufficient laws and institutions to counter despotism, but law enforcement is defective due to defective institutions.

It is time for the Cambodian government to correct defects in law enforcement and the country's institutions. The Cambodian National Assembly, as the representative of the nation responsible for the formation of the government, should exercise its power to make this government accountable to it. The judiciary should uphold its independence and impartiality and protect the rights and freedoms of all Cambodian citizens. Its members should not be affiliated to any political party, as almost all of them are at the moment.

All other institutions, including the army, the security forces, the civil service, the National Election Committee and the legal profession, should uphold their political neutrality and their impartiality. Above all, the government and the ruling party should respect the independence, political neutrality and impartiality applicable to the country's institutions.
(Lao Mong Hay is currently a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)

Labels: Abuse of power, Cronyism, Dysfunctional democracy, Hun Sen's control of power, Lack of justice, Land-grabbing by the rich and powerful, Lao Mong Hay

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