Cambodia: A Prevailing Air of Quiescence


Milton Osborne

Despite manifold issues that raise doubts and concerns about the character of governance in Cambodia, the air of quiescence that pervades the kingdom following the removal of Sam Rainsy's parliamentary immunity provides a telling commentary on the essentially untrammelled power of the government and, most importantly of Prime Minister Hun Sen. His pre-eminent position received a further boost at the end of January when Prince Norodom Ranariddh announced that he and his Funcinpec party would be backing Hun Sen for prime minister in the 2008 elections.

Accused of defaming Ranariddh by claiming that he agreed to enter into a coalition government with Hun Sen's CPP as the result of a bribe, Sam Rainsy, and two of his party colleagues, had their parliamentary immunity removed in a closed-door session of the National Assembly in early February. Following this decision, Rainsy fled the country stating that he feared for his life.

Yet the fall-out of this development, at least for the moment, has been negligible. Critical voices against the decision to remove immunity have been raised by human rights advocates, both Cambodian and foreign, but to no effect. Still ever ready to comment on political matters, former King Sihanouk added his voice to the protests with a nuanced comment that criticised the removal of immunity but called on Rainsy to justify his charge of corruption against Ranariddh. Probably of greater importance was the decision by the American NGO, the International Republican Institute, to suspend its work promoting democratic politics stating that recent events have shown 'how tenuous democracy in Cambodia is'.

Meanwhile, various issues of corruption remain unaddressed there is still no resolution of the issues associated from the major theft of rice from the United Nations World Food Program late last year and, at time of writing, the authorities had failed to arrest Chouk Rin, the man convicted of the murder of thirteen Cambodians and three Westerners, including Australian David Wilson. To date he has evaded arrest while giving interviews to various new outlets.

There is still a degree of uncertainty attached to the question of when, or whether, the planned trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders will take place. A pledging conference held in New York on 28 March increased the pledges given for the cost of the trial to the point where less than US$6 million of a required $56.3 million remains uncommitted. Should the shortfall in funds be overcome, important issues such as the composition of the tribunal's judicial officers will remain to be resolved. And there are still questions to be asked about the actual degree of enthusiasm of Hun Sen's government for the tribunal process. Certainly, there is every reason to believe that that tribunal process is not welcome to China, given the country's close involvement with the Pol Pot regime.

On the economic front, there are still reasons for grave concern in relation to the local textile industry. With the expiration of the international agreement on textiles that gave favoured treatment to poor countries such as Cambodia, local producers are anxiously waiting to see whether special arrangements might be legislated in Washington that would shield them against the expected flood of cheap Chinese products on to the American market. Textile exports account for 80 per cent of the country's total exports.

WATCHPOINT: Look out for any further developments in the Sam Rainsy immunity case that might suggest the government feels a need to pay heed to critical opinion.


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