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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cambodia and Cronyism

Phnom Penh's foreign donors are enabling abuses of human rights.

On Sept. 11, the body of Cambodian journalist Hang Serei Oudom was found stuffed into the trunk of his car with his head bashed in. At the time of his death, Mr. Oudom was writing about collusion between local businessmen and officials in the mountainous northwest. There as elsewhere in the country politicians, officials and logging companies have conspired to clear-cut virgin forests that are supposedly protected by the government.

The murder of Mr. Oudom is hardly an aberration in Cambodia. At least 10 journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1996. Social activists have fared no better: In April, a military policeman shot and killed environmentalist Chhut Vuthy as he investigated illegal logging in southwestern Koh Kong province. Dozens more have been summarily imprisoned for protesting illegal land seizures.
European Pressphoto Agency Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen

In 2011, Transparency International ranked Cambodia 164th out of 182 countries in its annual Corruption Perception Index. Rampant cronyism also suits Cambodia's one true foreign friend, China, which has poured billions of dollars of aid and soft loans into the country. In the process it has secured economic concessions and diplomatic fealty. At the July 11-12 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh, Cambodian diplomats scuppered a collective response to Beijing's encroachment in the South China Sea. Coincidentally, Beijing this month announced another $2.5 billion in investment and soft loans. 

Trade between America and Cambodia is also on the rise, with the U.S. accounting for 41% of Cambodia's garment-driven exports. Yet the Obama Administration has remained largely silent about Cambodia's recent malfeasance, most notably at the Asean summit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made no public mention of Cambodia's rights record. Two days after Mrs. Clinton left the country, the authorities imprisoned one of the country's leading opposition figures on dubious charges of secessionism. 

Cambodia's ongoing genocide tribunal still receives a lion's share of Western attention when it comes to human rights. But the most pressing issue for most Cambodians is land use. In the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have endured land grabs and evictions. They have suffered further when they dared to protest these abuses. 

Phnom Penh's international donors might stop to consider that Cambodia's oppressive cronyism is ultimately a manifestation of its disregard for the human right of private property. Absent meaningful pressure to protect property rights, foreign aid and investment will bring limited benefits.


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