Cambodian political road
By Verghese Mathews
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SINGAPORE - If there
is one lesson neighbors 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 fervor bent on quickly
redressing the situation.
this is not so in Phnom Penh, where once again
political infighting is preoccupying
decision-makers, instead of nation-building and
working toward self reliance. Politicking, it
would appear, is in the blood, bones, hair and
fingernails of Cambodian politicians, who practice
it with great enthusiasm and blatant impunity.
The melodrama is at the expense of the
poor, the weak and the marginalized, who are
becoming increasingly frustrated.
there is also a tiresome pattern of the political
discord in Phnom Penh invariably becoming
externalized, 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".
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 February 3 when the Cambodian
National Assembly voted to remove the
parliamentary immunity of opposition politician
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 the cover of parliamentary immunity.
Rainsy "fled" the country that same day.
He had similarly fled or sought refuge at some
embassy on previous occasions.
It was not
long before he arrived in Washington, Brussels and
Paris to externalize the problem. Here he must be
given credit - he has used his excellent outreach
to identify powerful people and groups that are
against Hun Sen and the CPP.
on February 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.
The resolution also urged donor countries
to impose "appropriate sanctions" against the
Cambodian government and the assembly until the
decision was reversed. The resolution further
demanded that US visas not be issued to any
parliamentarian who had voted in favor of the
decision and also be withheld from all his family
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
Rainsy also appeared on the
British Broadcasting Corporation's
Hardtalk. To criticisms from his detractors
that he did not fare too well and was on the
defensive, members of 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 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 Rainsy is no less guilty than those he
has accused of authoritarian tendencies and of
undermining the country's democratic credentials.
While 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 actions
For a post-conflict
country, Cambodia has done well, and it is fair to
say 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 countries. 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".
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.
think Rainsy overplayed his hand this time, but
his supporters at home remain mostly faithful, and
that is his plus factor.
Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to
Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of
Southeast Asian Studies.
2005, Verghese Mathews)
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