Cambodia: Amity Breaking Out All Over


Milton Osborne

There is a degree of puzzlement in Cambodia's political circles at Hun Sen's sudden about-face in approving, in mid-January, the release on bail of four activists who had been jailed for criticising the terms of the border agreement concluded with Vietnam in 2005. They had been jailed in late 2005 on the basis of the criminal defamation code, which Prime Minister Hun Sen has now stated he intends to abolish.

Even more surprisingly, given the long-standing antagonism between the two men, was Hun Sen's later decision to seek a royal pardon for Sam Rainsy, which, having been granted by the king, led to Sam Rainsy's returning to Phnom Penh in February and stating that there was now 'a new culture of dialogue with the government that entails mutual respect'.

Despite the air of puzzlement noted above, the explanation for Hun Sen's actions seems, at one level at least, fairly straightforward. During 2005 his government had come under increasing international criticism from major NGOs, such as Amnesty International, for human rights abuses, and in particular the use of the courts for political purposes. At the same time, in early 2006, the United Nations Special Representative to Cambodia on Human Rights, Yash Ghai, made an unusually strong statement criticising the defamation laws. Calling for the law to be redrafted completely, Ghai made clear his view that, as they stood, the laws could be used 'to harass political opponents and suppress freedom of expression'. Faced with this volume of criticism and with the Consultative Group on Cambodia due to meet in early March to decide on the international community's next aid package for the country, Hun Sen, the argument runs, decided he had to act to ensure there would be no cause for aid to be refused or limited. So he arranged for Sam Rainsy to be pardoned and had the jailed critics released. Whether there was any real chance of the Consultative Group refusing to provide the aid Cambodia so badly needs is unclear. In the event, the Group agreed to provide US$601 for the next twelve months, a rather larger amount than had been anticipated.

As is always the case in contemporary Cambodia, there are a number of more complex explanations being offered by local analysts. The most worthy of consideration among these argues that Hun Sen's actions are better regarded as mere window dressing at a time when power is ever more firmly within his personal grasp. According to this view, Hun Sen could afford to make cosmetic changes that did indeed have the virtue of placating Cambodia's major donors, at a time when a series of developments had ever more firmly established Cambodia as a one-party state. Among these developments was the long-anticipated resignation of Prince Ranariddh from his position as President of the National Assembly, an effective admission that he and his FUNCINPEC party could no longer play a role other than as a very junior partner to Hun Sen's CPP. But even more importantly was the passage through parliament of a change to parliamentary voting procedures that allows legislation to be passed on the basis of a simple majority (fifty per cent plus one) rather than the previous requirement that legislation could only be enacted when it received two-thirds of the vote. As, Maonh Saphan, one of the few FUNCINPEC legislators still ready to speak out against the CPP noted, the change gives the CPP 'one hundred per cent control' of the parliament.

The implication behind this second analysis is that Hun Sen and the CPP will be ready to revert to previous behaviour in the future, whether or not there are changes to the defamation laws, secure in the knowledge that they have total control of the parliament, as well as their firm control of Cambodia's security apparatus.

Former King Norodom Sihanouk has not been impressed by Hun Sen's apparent change of heart and has replied to a request from the prime minister that he should return to Cambodia from his self-imposed exile abroad by stating that if he were to return he would only find it necessary to leave again in the face of political upheaval. Sihanouk will not have been impressed that when Hun Sen was criticising the royal family last year he appears to have been behind the decision for a Phnom Penh radio station to play anti-Sihanouk songs dating from the Lon Nol period in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, there is some further progress towards the eventual establishment of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. As accommodation for the tribunal is being built, with provision for five hundred places for spectators, the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has submitted a list of twelve international judges from which the actual non-Cambodian members of the tribunal can be selected. The actual names have not yet been made public.

March was a month for cementing relations with Vietnam as the Vietnamese Prime Minister, Pahn Van Khai, visited Phnom Penh and King Sihamoni made a visit to Hanoi.

WATCHPOINT: Look for any sign that the sudden emergence of political good feeling is more than a passing phase, particularly if Hun Sen's critics choose to test the extent of his tolerance.


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