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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 17, 2005
Cambodian political road show
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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Worse, 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".

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 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.

Rainsy scored 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 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 programs.

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 in perspective.

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.

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

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

(Copyright 2005, Verghese Mathews)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Hope rises from squalor in Cambodia 
(Jan 26, '05)

In Cambodia, Hun Sen is in the driver's seat (Jun 19, '04)


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