Cambodia: Plus ca Change


Dr Milton Osborne

August and September have done little to alter the image that Cambodia has acquired as a country where the rule of law means little when the interests of the government are involved; and as a country where the rich are powerful and the powerful are rich.

The conviction of Sam Rainsy Party member, Cheam Channny, on 9 August by a military court for allegedly organising an illegal armed force while he was a member of his party's shadow defence committee has been widely regarded as an abuse of due process. His case has been adopted by Amnesty International, which has declared him 'a prisoner of conscience' and cited the verdict as 'a chilling reminder of how far the authorities are willing to go to stifle freedom of expression and association and political opposition'.

In another court case that has gained international attention, the former king, now known as King Father Sihanouk, has intervened to express his doubts about the conviction of two men for the murder of trade union leader, Chea Vichea, in January 2004. Apparently overwhelming evidence absolving the two men charged with the murder was ignored by the presiding judge, who appears to have been more concerned to achieve a conviction than to weigh the evidence. Not surprisingly, the conviction verdict has been widely seen as dictated by political considerations, not least because an earlier decision by a different judge found no evidence against the men and led to the judge being sent off to a minor provincial appointment.

Meanwhile, there is a continuing concern among local and international NGOs about the on-going instances of forcible acquisition of land by powerful interests. Among the notable examples of occupants being forced from their land was the case earlier this year when five people were killed and 40 injured when Casino interests took possession of land near Poipet, and there is continuing controversy over plans to evict farmers from Koh Pich island located in the Mekong near Phnom Penh.

These, and other cases, have led the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, to state that 'the land crisis in Cambodia is probably ... the national crisis' because of the manner in which it affects the lives of ordinary people.

A further step towards the eventual establishment of a tribunal to try senior Khmer Rouge figures came with the appointment at the beginning of September of UN staffer Michelle Lee to become the coordinator for the world body's assistance to the tribunal. A date for the commencement of the tribunal's proceedings is still not known as there is still a shortfall in funding for its operations.

On a rare positive commercial note, Australia's ANZ Bank has just become the only non-Southeast Asian majority owned bank to open in Cambodia. Operating in association with a local business conglomerate, the Royal Group, the ANZ Royal Bank has four branches in Phnom Penh and plans to open additional branches in Siem Reap and Battambang. Under agreements signed last year, ANZ holds a 55 per cent interest in the venture.

WATCHPOINT: Any suggestion of a challenge to the present political dominance of the CPP government would be a significant development.


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