Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Cambodia's Development Challenges
July 25, 2008 (Council on Foreign Relations)
Cambodia today is far from the nightmare of the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for as many as two million deaths. With high economic growth, increasing levels of foreign investment, and regular parliamentary elections, Cambodia has made considerable progress. In November 2007, the UN-backed genocide tribunal tasked with trying surviving members of the Khmer Rouge finally began work. Despite restrictions placed on the trial by the Cambodian government, experts say it will still bring a sense of justice to Cambodians. So far, five officials from the Communist regime have been arrested by the court (Guardian) on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But concerns remain over the governing style of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Sen, expected to win another five-year mandate in July 27 parliamentary elections (ElectionGuide), has dominated the country's politics for two decades. A former Khmer Rouge member, he has been reluctant to give up power, even staging a coup in 1997. Human Rights Watch says the Cambodian government has made no progress in the past decade on the rule of law, judicial independence, or human rights. Freedom House, another U.S.-based rights watchdog, rates Cambodia as "not free" in its 2008 index tracking political rights and civil liberties. It says government officials continue to "engage in land grabs and other abuses with impunity, failing to improve social and economic conditions for the majority of the population."
Corruption remains a serious problem for economic growth and development. Transparency International's 2007 Global Corruption Barometer listed Cambodia as one of the countries most affected by bribery; 72 percent of survey respondents said they had paid a bribe to obtain services. In February 2008 testimony to a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, Scot Marciel, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs said, "weak rule of law, rampant corruption, and weak institutions remain major challenges to Cambodia's democratic development and sustained economic growth." Despite double-digit growth in gross domestic product (GDP) in recent years, Cambodia remains a poor country. More than 30 percent of the population lives under the national poverty line and nearly 90 percent (PDF) of the population is rural, with over 65 percent employed in the agriculture sector.
Cambodia has tried to catch up with its other more economically dynamic neighbors through greater regional economic integration, and has pursued dialogue with Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand over border disputes. In the current military standoff (NYT) with Thailand over a temple along the border, Cambodia's government has sought the help of its neighbors as well as the United Nations.
Over the last decade, Sen has cultivated especially close economic relations with China, one of the country's major investors. China also gives Cambodia millions of dollars in aid annually and provides military assistance. Some experts say unconditional assistance from China worsens corruption in Cambodia. Simon Taylor, director of the international anticorruption group Global Witness, told Radio Free Asia in May, “The effect of lots of money coming in with few strings attached, going to a lot of people in the government, is generally exacerbating corruption.” International human rights organizations say donors must condition development assistance on reform in areas such as human rights, good governance, and the rule of law.