Cambodia: Politics Eclipsed


Milton Osborne

The attention given by the media to the school siege in Siem Reap on 16 June underlines the fact that little else has occurred in Cambodia in recent months that appears newsworthy to the broader international community. With Hun Sen's CPP government in unchallenged control of Cambodia's current destinies, political life has been largely, if not totally, eclipsed.

For those looking to change in Cambodia's still-prevailing culture of impunity, the argument is advanced that international donors should be more demanding in their calls for the government to meet higher standards of democratic procedure. So, when the donors meet to review the government's performance, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) is calling for them to make future contributions dependent on higher standards of public behaviour. In particular they are calling for the restoration of parliamentary immunity to three SRP members who are currently under indictment, including Sam Rainsy himself, who is in exile in France.

The problem for critics of the government, whether Cambodian or foreign, is that whatever reservations donors might hold about the nature of Hun Sen's government they have proved themselves highly reluctant to make a direct link between improved standards of governance and the provision of aid. Given Cambodia's past travails, foreign donors, in the final analysis, baulk at making their aid conditional.

While politics, in the sense of any change in the composition or the character of the government, have been eclipsed, there continue to be a range of issues that underline the still troubled nature of contemporary Cambodia. Land ownership is one of the most striking of these, with repeated claims of powerful figures with links to the government acquiring control of land by dubious means.

The end of the Multi-Fibre Agreement at the beginning of 2005 and the concurrent sharp increase in Chinese textile exports has already had an effect in Cambodia which depends on garment exports for 80 per cent of its foreign income. One immediate effect has been the loss of at least 20,000 jobs in the textile industry since the beginning of the year. It is unlikely that the restriction of exports China has imposed on itself in response to European Union complaints will have much, if any, effect in assisting the Cambodian industry.

The aborted Siem Reap siege has briefly shone light on Cambodia's problem of endemic criminality, with frequent instances of violent crime. A survey of the 'Police Blotter' in the fortnightly Phnom Penh Post sadly suggests that what took place in Siem Reap is only a more dramatic instance of the criminal activity, often involving homicide that is a constant feature of life in Cambodia today.

WATCHPOINT: The emergence of an issue that shifts politics from its current static state is awaited.


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