A Change of Guard

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Thursday, 21 April 2011

Cambodia’s worrying trajectory

By Prashanth Parameswaran
The Asianist, The Tufts Daily
Published: Wednesday, April 20, 2011

As thousands of representatives convene in Phnom Penh today for a donor conference, Cambodia is mulling a draft NGO law that forces associations and non−governmental organizations to undergo an onerous registration process. While the government says the bill aims to stem crime and promote transparency within these institutions, it doesn't take a lawyer of Atticus Finch's acumen to grasp this as another veiled attempt by Prime Minister Hun Sen to curb dissent and destroy the fabric of civil society in the country.

Over the course of ten years up till the financial crisis, Cambodia appeared to have pulled itself out of the abyss of war and genocide, building a $10 billion economy expanding at an annual average of nearly ten percent per year. But this hollow economic growth has lined the pockets of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his cronies rather than trickle down to the country's citizens. According to Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize−winning veteran New York Times reporter and author of a fresh book on Cambodia, 80 percent of Cambodians still live without access to basic electricity, water or sanitation, while nearly half of the country's children grow up stunted due to lack of nutrition. Phnom Penh ranks a dismal 154th in Transparency International's 178−nation Corruption Perception Index, and the global economic recession exposed its deep and unhealthy dependence on garment exports.

Economic growth has also coexisted with increasing political repression. Over the past few years, the country's strongman Hun Sen has used the courts against prominent opposition figures, outlawed demonstrations, and restricted free speech and organized labor, turning Cambodia into a de−facto one−party state. He has also whipped up anti−Thai sentiments in Cambodia to shore up his domestic popularity, according to Kevin Doyle, editor−in−chief of the Cambodia Daily who spoke at the Fletcher School last week. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge and currently South East Asia's longest serving leader, already enjoys an iron grip on power, with his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) winning 90 of 123 lower house parliamentary seats in the last election. Like most observers, Mr. Doyle sees Hun Sen's political dominance continuing over the next few years.

The NGO law is clearly the latest manifestation of Hun Sen's authoritarian streak. There is a high risk of it being misused to silence dissent, particularly since Phnom Penh can reject new registrations or shutter existing groups without explanation or appeal. Fresh amendments introduced by the government since the draft law was first introduced in December 2010 only make this outcome even more likely. As a result, sixty−two international organizations working in Cambodia, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have called on the government to withdraw the law and for donors to protest it.

Few good options exist, however, for the international community. Cambodian officials have grown accustomed to the pattern of absorbing criticism at pledge conferences, promising to reform and then using the over $1 billion in aid for themselves rather than their people, says Mr. Brinkley. Human rights groups, on the other hand, heckle donors to withhold their greens every year to no avail. Besides, many donors now write off aid as a form of leverage because China is ever−willing to step in for the West — no strings attached. Last year, just weeks after the United States froze military assistance to Cambodia, China pledged millions of dollars in new aid to the Cambodian military.

But setbacks should not lead to cynicism. Cambodia's garment industry is sufficiently reliant on Western markets. In particular, the United States, Cambodia's largest trading partner, can help Phnom Penh integrate into the international order as it diversifies its economy after the crisis. This is leverage that can be exercised to ensure that the NGO law and Hun Sen's future repressive actions do not occur without protest. Cambodia ought to be governed by those that uphold the rule of law, rather than those who misuse the law to rule.

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