Cambodia: A Busy Month

2003

Dr Milton OSBORNE

June proved to be a very busy month in Cambodian politics. It was marked, most importantly, by the signing on 6 June of an agreement between the Cambodian government and the United Nations for the establishment of a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders. The essential features of the agreement, which continue to provoke criticism from a number of NGOs, are that those who are to come before the tribunal will be tried under Cambodian law and that Cambodian judges will constitute the majority sitting on the bench. Nevertheless, decisions will have to be endorsed by at least one of the international judges on the tribunal at all stages of proceedings.

At the time of writing (24 June), there was an outside possibility that the agreement could have (in June) been brought before the National Assembly, where it must be endorsed before coming into operation. But since parliament was to be prorogued on 30 June, any debate over ratification looked more likely to be delayed until a new parliament sits in September.

Campaigning for the elections due on 27 July is well under way, and with it are fears that there could be a repeat of previous pre-election violence. Hun Sen and the CPP appear well placed to remain the dominant political party as a result of their superior organisation and control of key military and administrative assets. There has been a continuing drift of support away from FUNCINPEC, while Sam Rainsy's brave criticisms of the CPP leadership seem unlikely to be translated into electoral success.

A notable event at the end of May was the arrest of three foreign teachers at an Islamic school attended by members of Cambodia's Cham minority. The men, two Thais and an Egyptian, have been accused of being part of a Jemaah Islamiah terror network operating in Cambodia. Later, on 12 June, a Cambodian national and follower of Islam was arrested as a suspected JI member. All those arrested were said to have been plotting to make an attack on the ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting that was held in Cambodia in the week beginning 16 June. The government also expelled 28 other foreign Islamic teachers and closed a Saudi-funded Islamic religious school.

The arrests draw attention to a development that has received little publicity internationally, but which has been widely recognised by observers in Phnom Penh. This has been the involvement of Middle Eastern countries and, in particular, Saudi Arabia, in providing substantial financial support for the Cham minority - a widely accepted estimate is of monthly donations to the Islamic Cham community from Saudi Arabia being of the order of US$100,000. It is also apparent that religious teachers, who have come to Cambodia from the Middle East, have included those supporting the hard line and austere Wahhabi verson of Islam. In pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, there was little interest on the part of the Cham community of some 700,000 in links with the Middle East. After suffering badly under the Khmer Rouge, the community has been increasingly receptive to missionary activity over the past decade.

Following a meeting between the Cambodian and Thai cabinets at the town of Siemreap on 31 May, relations between the two states have returned to something approaching normal.

Another sign of 'normality' is the continued sniping taking place between King Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Relations between the two have not really improved since exchanges that took place in 2002, when Sihanouk accused Hun Sen of presiding over a mendicant state. While not the foremost issue in Cambodian politics, the question of who will succeed the king, who is in poor heath, remains a matter of considerable interest. This is so, not least, as Sihanouk continues to propose, and then retract comments, that he might abdicate.

Some well-informed observers are suggesting that it is possible that there will be no immediate successor to the position of king after Sihanouk's death, with Hun Sen and Queen Monineath finding it in their mutual interest for her to assume the position of regent as a 'symbol of the throne'. Such a development would recall the events following Sihanouk's father's death in 1960.

WATCHPOINT: Is the agreement with the United Nations for a Khmer Rouge tribunal a final resolution of this vexed problem?

 

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